On Brand No. 8: Meet Gefen Skolnick, coffee's Chief Gay Officer
This is an edited version of an email newsletter sent on June 2, 2022. We send out new issues every other Thursday, featuring deep-dive essays and interviews with industry leaders. Sign up below.
This week’s plot:
The pros and cons of “building in public”
Establishing brand fundamentals early = easier wins later
It’s not that hard to be a good person
Meet Gefen Skolnick, the Chief Gay Officer
Maybe you’ve heard of Gefen Skolnick already. Maybe this is the first time. Doesn’t matter — either way, you’re going to hear about her again. And again. She’s currently building Couplet, a coffee and lifestyle brand (we just sponsored their recent Queer Poetry and Art Night in LA, check it out!). She’s also a VC. She also created Bunch of Founders, an inclusive and open community space for 2000+ active underrepresented founders.
This interview has been edited for length — wish the interview itself could’ve been even longer, Gefen is the type of person you just want to keep talking to. You’d be hard-pressed to find a kinder, sharper, more motivated person.
On Brand: You’ve been building Couplet in public. What’s good, what’s hard about that?
Gefen Skolnick: It’s just the core of my business and how I operate. Not something I intend to move away from even if things go south. Every time I see somebody talking about their business and it’s screwed, I’m like “Great. I’ve had some really bad days, it’s great to hear other people do, too.”
You have to stick to transparency. There hasn’t been anything so bad that I’ve felt like I can’t let people know. Definitely many bad moments with fundraising, but you have to bring people into it.
The pros outweigh the cons by far. Like, I’ve had people DM me saying I inspired them to come out as queer in their professional space. I’m just a nobody building in a space, and if I can inspire other people to come out, or do exactly what they want to do — that’s awesome. That’s worth all the hard parts.
OB: You’ve talked about not running paid ads. In the DTC space, I know Fishwife has done the same. Then there’s Fly by Jing — she runs plenty paid. Will you run paid? What do you learn from these other brands?
GS: Well, I’m friends with the founders of both those companies, so I can tell you the reasoning for all of us. Jing actually didn’t do paid for a long time — when the time was right, she did throw money at it.
With Fishwife, they’re really good at social, at community, at visual branding. They’re scrappy. Once Becca [Millstein, Fishwife Co-founder] hunkered down on the fundamentals and got very specific about how they allocated resources, it was super natural for them. That’s the approach we’re taking.
Eventually, most of us will end up doing paid. You just have to be disciplined at first.
Artist’s rendition of these three brands vibing at the coffee beach (?)
Jing is the number one founder where I’m like, “I want to be there in two years.” She really got the visuals right, she’s abrasive on social media — she’s built a lifestyle brand.
The key component of why Fishwife, and especially Jing, have been successful is that they feel like lifestyle brands. That’s what I’m trying to do with Couplet. That’s how organic growth happens, and that’s what will make any paid advertising we might eventually do successful.
OB: You’ve said your brand is based in queerness, art, and coffee. How do build on that authentically? How do you scale while maintaining credibility?
GS: I’m not going to sell my soul to build another soulless coffee business. Look: it would be so easy for me to pipe down, build a brand that’s not abrasive, not queer, not doing funky events.
I’ve had many opportunities to sell out, but that’s not me. I’ve had multiple opportunities where a really big company wants to align with us, but I can’t because I know I’d get a ton of flack — opportunities that could bring us an extra six figures in revenue, but that would undercut what we’re trying to do.
Photo from Couplet’s recent community Queer Art and Poetry Night. More photos here!
I’m still the only full-time employee, and Couplet is very much an extension of who I am. So right now, it’s easy to make these decisions and stay credible. I won’t sacrifice my values just for a short-term scaling play.
OB:As you grow the brand, what specific moves would you choose not to make?
GS: Don’t align with brands that contradict the inclusive nature of Couplet. I have to be aligned with brands who believe in human rights and are allies to queer people in one way or another.
It’s really quite simple. Couplet has to be aligned with people who truly care about other people.
OB: How do you square that need with the difficulties of the supply chain?
GS: It’s still simple. I work with farms directly. I get our beans from a co-op, I tell them I prefer to work with women producers. We price our coffee so we can pay our suppliers equitably.
Ultimately I just don’t think it’s that hard to not be a shitty person.
Get your beans (or some of their sick merch) right here.
Key takeaways ☕📈
Building in public can be tough, but it allows you to inspire others and build community, not just a business.
Hunkering down on brand fundamentals early on makes later stages of growth much easier.
Don’t start experimenting with paid until you’ve got a resonant, recognizable brand. Once you do: spend on ads, test, repeat.
If your brand is rooted in certain values, stick to those values. Short-term compromises are long-term losses.
When choosing collaborators, never work with partners who compromise your values, even if the financial ROI seems hard to pass up.
In the know
Must-reads, hot takes, and rising trends:
Reddit is home to some of the most engaged, authentic communities on the web. It can be a difficult place for marketers and community managers to find footing. Here are some tips.
Notion has one of the best brands in SaaS. We explored why. Spoiler: it comes down to context, clarity, and community.
What happens when shipping containers get lost at sea? Kathryn Schulz goes deep on the supply chain, the environment, and more.
Marketing + Creative jobs at our favorite brand-forward companies:
BiddyCo needs an Art Director
Fat Earth needs a Creative Manager
De La Calle needs a Content Creator, TikTok
Air is also hiring for a variety of roles! Click here to apply.