It was Spring 2015 in Florence, Italy, and Teal Cooper was studying abroad when she received a call from her younger brother, Tristan, who was having a late-night study session at his university in Texas. He expressed his struggle to find coffee to keep him awake and that’s when the idea came to Cooper to make barista-quality coffee accessible to people 24/7. The siblings researched the industry and soon became co-founders of VendiBean, an electronic barista that is helping to revolutionize the bean-to-cup vending machine market fueled by a tech-savvy society. We chatted with Cooper about her experience being an Aztec entrepreneur and the strong foundation she was able to build for her business while at SDSU.
Year Founded: 2016
Technology: High-tech vending machines that produce high-quality craft coffee
MVP: Teal Cooper
Headcount: Two full-time founders & three part-time employees
Funds Raised: The team has raised a seed round of $50,000 from a family friend and is currently seeking investors
Learn by Doing: As soon as Cooper decided she wanted to start VendiBean, she hit the ground running. She reached out to local coffee roasters and also applied to work for a vending machine company in order to learn how they operate. The young entrepreneur went from not knowing anything about the coffee and vending machine industries to acquiring enough knowledge to launch her very first VendiBean machine in student-centric BLVD63 Apartments in February 2016, which is in close proximity to SDSU. After receiving feedback, Cooper learned there were opportunities to improve in many areas of the business, including the quality of the coffee. She also discovered that coffee drinkers are generally open to trying new flavors. These revelations lead her to work with local roasters and introduce her customers to San Diego-brewed coffee, allowing them to feel more connected to their city. “Our business model is to only partner with local roasters in whichever city we service. We did this because local roasters are super passionate about the craft and the quality of their coffee and truly care about the entire process,” Cooper says, adding that this strategy aligns with VendiBean’s high quality promise. “We wanted to empower them by giving them an outlet to showcase their beans and craft in locations where their storefronts can’t be. We also aim to create a sense of community around each of our machines by only using the local roasters.”
Bean-to-Cup Branding: Every detail from the cup to the machine to the logo has been thoughtfully branded by Cooper with the help of her friends. The cups are designed to promote social media engagement. VendiBean customers are encouraged to fill in the blank of the “Coffee because…” text on its cups and post their creations on sites like Instagram and Snapchat. The engagement strengthens the VendiBean community online and in-person.
AzTech Inspiration: Cooper came up with the idea for her business the summer before her senior year of college. While she did not formally participate in the entrepreneurial resources at SDSU, she did “attend a few keynote speakers hosted by the Entrepreneur Society, which were very motivating and insightful.” SDSU’s Entrepreneur Society is an extremely active student organization that hosts numerous speakers each semester from the tech and startup scene in San Diego. It provides its members with insight into the realities of entrepreneurship while also allowing students to network with speakers and with their peers.
Academic Advice: Because her major was journalism media studies with a minor in international studies, Cooper did not take any entrepreneurial courses in college. While she felt like she’d missed out on the opportunity to take advantage of the entrepreneurial resources SDSU has to offer, Cooper wants “other students to know that if their major isn’t what they want to pursue after college, they can still accomplish their goals if they believe they can and dedicate to a plan.”
Coffee Klatch: VendiBean works closely with the best local roasters, like Ryan Bros, and features them through their “European bean-to-cup technology that creates a delicious cup of joe for the productive individual on the go.” The bean-to-cup technology enables a machine to perform all processes necessary to transform a raw coffee bean to a hot cup of coffee. This means you’re drinking coffee made from beans that were ground just seconds before your first sip. The bulk of the rich flavor and aroma – which dissipates the longer coffee grounds sit on store shelves – is retained during the extraction process.
Business Model: The Cooper siblings initially looked to market specifically to millennials, but soon realized that the market for convenient and high quality coffee stretched far beyond colleges and libraries. So, they decided to develop two models – retail and office. The retail model has a cashless payment solution (credit cards and Apple Pay) for high foot traffic locations like hospitals, colleges, and airports. VendiBean’s office model is a subscription for companies to provide complimentary coffee for their employees. VendiBean now has 50 high-tech touch screen machines placed in San Diego, including UCSD, Palomar College, Irvine Company properties, BLVD63, Palomar Hospital, co-working spaces, HP, Cox Business, and Power Digital Marketing.
VendiBean purchases all of the vending machines and places them at either retail or office locations. For retail, the company does a profit share with the location and customers pay per cup (all under $3) with VendiBean’s cashless interface. For the office customers, the company pays monthly for usage of VendiBean’s product with no machine fee.
Mentors: When asked about whether she has any mentors, Cooper credits the people in the San Diego startup community for referrals. Being part of the tight-knit Aztec community, it only makes sense that “one of them is Martin Bridges, an SDSU alum and a huge SDSU advocate.”
Challenges: Cooper is no stranger to the hardships of starting a company. She says the biggest struggle she’s had as a young entrepreneur is that “people often view us as not being credible or capable enough.”
San Diego Scene: Cooper says she decided to base her business here because “we launched my senior year at SDSU and one thing lead to another,” adding, “San Diego is also a booming craft coffee scene with a variety of local roasters who have been eager to work with us and help perfect our recipes.” While Cooper agrees that “the San Diego startup scene is thriving with a lot of talented entrepreneurs, mentors and great resources,” she struggles with the fact that “when it comes to raising capital for our company, I think the resources are limited because San Diego has been hyper-focused on the traditional biotech and tech industries.” On a more optimistic note, Cooper says “I also believe we’re on the cusp of major growth in the area with more companies putting roots down here. The challenge is getting visibility in a smaller market that’s saturated by very specific businesses.”
What’s Brewing: VendiBean currently has over 50 machines across San Diego and Austin, TX. Cooper wants to grow this number, citing that the company’s “one-year plan is to scale regionally throughout California and create a market share in LA, Orange County/Irvine, and San Francisco.” She plans on doing so by “raising our seed stage currently to last us 18 months” and using those funds to place 200 more machines between two cities, bringing the total to 250 VendiBean machines. “We need the capital for scaling, inventory, operations, and logistics,” she says.
Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (current and alumni) who are blazing a trail in technology and entrepreneurship. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs. #GoAzTechs
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