Hannah Mendoza is the cofounder and CEO of Clevr Blends. I was fortunate to have her in several of my UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurship classes. She was a standout student, with a maturity and focus beyond her years. Thus, I wasn’t surprised when I learned that not only was her venture flourishing, but that she had enlisted the support of three of the world’s most influential people, Oprah Winfrey, Sara Blakley and Meghan Markle.
Along with her Cofounder, Roger Coppola, Clevr was initially launched as a popup coffee bar. Once the product/market fit was clear, the company pivoted to a direct-to-consumer business, with approximately half its customers opting for an ongoing subscription.
Per Hannah, “(We offer) upgraded functional latte drinks, so they’re all oat milk based and we use different mushrooms and probiotics and different elevated ingredients. The reason we do that is because a lot of people struggle with the way traditional black coffee caffeine… makes them feel.
These drinks (we’d make at the bar) made people feel amazing and they’d come to us and say, ‘How do I do this at home? I want to be able to recreate this.’ The answer was always pretty disappointing because for most people, you don’t have twenty minutes in the morning you don’t have fifteen different powders in your cupboard, it’s just not practical.
There’s a big barrier between these healthy, exciting new foods that people are starting to use to make themselves feel better and actually incorporating them into their lives. So, that was the opportunity for us where we said, ‘What we’re doing is great but… we need to make this as easy and approachable as possible. Let’s make a ‘just add water’ drink. Let’s take all the amazing ingredients from the (popup coffee) bar… but let’s do it so someone can make it in ten seconds.’
The approach that we wanted to take is meeting people where they’re at, especially with flavor profile and texture, because ultimately… what we want to do is provide a plant-based, healthier alternative. It can’t taste healthy. It can’t taste like it’s a compromise. If that is the case, then it’s not scalable. It’s not exciting to me to have a product that’s applicable only to people that are willing to punish themselves… to make them feel good.”
A Clevr Startup Indeed
We began our conversation by discussing Hannah’s youthful entrepreneurial adventures, growing up outside of London.
(Note: Hannah’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability. For her unexpurgated comments, check out the video.)
Cookies And The Whipped Cream Upsell
Hannah Mendoza: I definitely had a lot of schemes (laughing). I don’t know if it particularly reflects well on me, but I think my first venture was at age seven. I would go and buy big trays of cookies from my local baker. I grew up just outside of London, and also, cans of whipped cream. I would sell the cookies with the whipped cream on top at a 500% markup. The whipped cream was an upsell – you could also buy it separately as its own item, which was (sprayed) directly into someone’s hand.
On the one hand, it’s kind of taking advantage of kids being out of sight of their parents and feeding them unhealthy things, which is definitely not where I’m at right now in my career, but I did give all the money to a local charity, so I feel like I redeemed myself.
Expanding Your College Education
Hannah and I then discussed what young people can do to maximize their time in college, especially if they are not attending a business school, to be optimally prepared for startup life.
Mendoza: On the college front, I feel there are certain advantages to this very short time period in your life. The first one is, you probably have more time than you’re ever going to have. I feel like I didn’t necessarily do this to its fullest capacity, but I wish I would have taken some of that time that I had and not just relied on college to give me everything I needed to start an entrepreneurial career.
Calling up local business people that you really respect and get some of extracurricular work to get real life experience, so at least you know, “Here are my strengths. Here are my skills. If I want to start my own business, here’s where I have to compensate,” and bring other people to help. I think the sooner you know yourself in that way, the better positioned you are.
Another amazing thing about that time in your life is it’s when people have the lowest expectations in regards to your credentials. So, you’re not being judged on what’s on your resume necessarily. They’re judging you by the content of your character. They’re judging you by your level of excitement, your initiative. You’re still so embryonic in your career, that I feel it allows you to reach for things that maybe are higher than you’d reach for if you were further down the line.
So, really taking advantage of that because you’re just your raw potential in a lot of people’s eyes. I think that is such an asset and it’s very specific to that time in your life.
Also, very tangible and very practical – taking that time… to do some outside learning and take some online courses, things that you know you’re going to need or things you’re passionate about, be it marketing, be it finance. There’s so many resources for that these days and applying yourself in the same way that you’re applying yourself to school, it will give you such a head start.
Seek Out Serially-Successful Teams
I typically advise my students to work with proven, successful entrepreneurs upon graduation, rather than starting a venture right out of school. This allows young people to learn on the job, while being mentored by experienced, guiding hands. If a startup’s Founders are trying to figure it out on the fly, it’s likely the young members of their team will flounder in the fog of ambiguity and misdirection.
Hannah landed an incredible opportunity after UCSB at Imlak’esh Organics, a super-foods company, as its first employee. Not only was she able to learn from experienced entrepreneurs, she also positioned herself in a space that fulfilled her passion and ultimately informed Clevr’s launch and operations.
I asked Hannah what led to her securing such a spot-on role, right out of school.
Mendoza: Getting the job was just keeping my ears open for opportunities. I had a friend of a friend who told me that they (Imlak’esh) were starting a food business that was rooted in ethical and transparent sourcing. I was getting really into learning about food systems and permaculture at the time. So, I just asked him (one of the Founders) to grab coffee and he and his partner turned up.
I just showed them how passionate I was about what they were doing and their idea and they took me on as an Intern. It was at that stage where you do everything. There was two of them and I ended up being their first hire and was with them for three and a half years.
In terms of learnings from that, I was coming in with a completely blank slate of what it looked like to work at any kind of company, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions of… what a workplace should be like or how to interact with people. So, I feel like it was very formative.
It was also quite a non-traditional workplace in a lot of ways. Everyone on the team was very close – we felt like family. We’d spend the weeks together but then we’d also spend the weekends together and learning the importance of having a really intimate company culture, not so much in a corporate way, like, “Let’s do an away day once a quarter,” but in more of, “I want to feel really connected to the people that I’m spending 70% of my waking hours with.”
I saw how that translated to such a deeper level of commitment to the work that we were all doing and because the work was difficult, because it was a hustle, because it’s startup life, having that connection was what fueled the level of commitment from everyone on the team.
I don’t know how scalable that is, or how appropriate that is, for every business at every stage, but… with Clevr, while we still are a small team, I’ve really tried to bring in that sense of merging of worlds of people’s personal and work life to make people feel really close and on the same path with where they’re going.
(On) a more practical point, I saw what it took to run a business that had a grocery foundation, as opposed to an online DTC (direct to consumer) foundation. It took a small army to run a business like that and it was part of why, when we were starting Clevr and there was just two of us, we chose to go the online route because it was just so much easier to do that with less capacity and less people so, that was really big.
I guess the last thing on that is, I really learned the value of compartmentalization. I saw the founders of Imlak’esh Tucker (Garrison) and Philip (Matthew), they really modeled the startup cofounder life. They’re at work until seven, eight, nine o’clock and they’re working their asses off and when they were outside of that, in other parts of their lives they were able, however stressful work was, to put it aside. They were able to show up for the other parts of their lives and I saw how that allowed them to stay sane. That was a really important lesson for me, now as I am kind of struggling with the same things.
Working With High-Profile Investors
Clevr received significant media attention when the company announced an investment from Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. I asked Hannah what she learned regarding managing the sudden scrutiny that comes with the involvement of well-known investors and advisors.
Mendoza: In terms of learnings, I think it’s obviously such an incredible thing for something like that to happen and was just absolutely surreal in all ways (but) the hard work definitely didn’t stop there. So having a big push, having momentum… it’s not a silver bullet. It’s about what you do with that and how you keep that going and use that to fuel the fire.
Just turning up in your most authentic version of yourself is the most long-standing technique, because the mask is going to come off eventually anyway. So, not being afraid to show up as you are, especially when you’re stepping up from a business perspective – it’s more human, it’s more attractive.
Oprah Tells Her Friends
Hannah and I then discuss the impact of Instagram posts by several celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Sara Blakley, both of which came as surprises to the company. We began by talking about Oprah’s Holiday Season post, in which she prepared a drink on camera.
Mendoza: Surreal is the word that keeps coming up. For a little bit of context, when that happened, my cofounder and I weren’t actually in the same place. I was sitting at my desk. It was six or seven on a Sunday night and I was desperately trying to put the final tweaks on a new version of our website. We’d redone our website and, at that moment, I was editing copy, I was making sure we didn’t have bugs.
We didn’t know it was going to happen. The website is still not completely finished and… I saw this notification pop up on my phone that said, “Oprah’s tagged you in a post,” and I fell off my chair and was slightly hyperventilating.
(I) called my Cofounder Rog and he answered the phone, wearing a hairnet. He was in our commercial kitchen because, right up until the beginning of this year, we would work on our computers during the day and then at nighttime and on weekends we’d either be at events or we’d be in the kitchen making the product… and he’s mopping the floors.
I’m like, “You have to open your phone right now, you have to look at Instagram. You’re not going to believe what just happened.” It just so perfectly encapsulated the point in the business that we were at and how massive that moment was for us, how grassroots we were. It was such a wild moment.
Sara Blakely Spreads Some Latte Love
We then discussed Sara Blakely’s Instagram post, in which she shared her love of Clevr as a non-coffee, latte alternative.
Mendoza: That was also such an amazing moment. What really was so beautiful to me, and I think struck a chord with a lot of folks, and why that was a big moment for us, is it was so authentic.
She was in bed with a cup of chai and just talking about how much she loved it. She took everyone through making it. It was a reminder that those things really strike a chord in a different way and she’s also a thought leader and someone that a lot of people really respect.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse