Jessie Hsia and Hannah Lee were friends before they were business partners, and although their coffee business, The Kopi Trading Co., has not evolved in exactly the way they planned, Jessie and Hannah, both NYU Stern School of Business graduates, learned a lot of valuable business lessons along the way.
The idea for Kopi Trading came about when Jessie’s father landed a diplomatic post in Indonesia. Jessie knew she wanted to start her own business, and because Indonesian coffee is beloved the world over, she decided to start selling the coffee beans wholesale. Jessie enlisted her friend Hannah to help her shape the business. “I’m more about the big picture, but Hannah sweats the details,” Jessie says, “so we sort of complement each other.”
The two started brainstorming about what they wanted the company to be and mapping out some baby steps toward growth. They attended a competition, where their product pitch was well received, mainly because of the public speaking and presentation skills they learned in their Organizational Communication class at Stern. “I think the thing that made us stand apart is that we had those presentation skills,” says Hannah. “That particular class really taught us how to have confidence when standing up in front of an audience.”
Buoyed by their success at that competition, they began to sell more coffee beans, and that’s when Jessie and Hannah decided to transition into manufacturing bottled cold brew coffee instead. However, they faced a big challenge: how to break through. “We went to trade shows, we did product pitches, and we spent a lot of late nights formulating strategy,” says Jessie. Their hard work paid off when they found a local distributor, but when that distributor was acquired by another, larger company, “Kopi went through some almost-macro level changes,” says Jessie.
“First off, we realized our limitations,” she says. “To support a business like that, with just two people and an intern, was basically impossible without sufficient funding.” Then there was the fact that their timing was off. “We were right in the middle of the cold brew bubble,” says Hannah, “so there was a lot of fierce competition.”
Undeterred by these setbacks, Jessie and Hannah adapted and persevered. “We’re working with restaurants now, supplying them directly. It’s a little more relationship-based rather than margin-based,” says Jessie. And one day, she hopes to open a Kopi Trading Co. brick-and-mortar location. “We’re in it to win it,” says Jessie. “We’re not a unicorn in the tech space. We’re just a small company, trying to put it together in a very dynamic way.”