Jordan Karcher on creating social impact through Grounds & Hounds Coffee Co.
I didn’t always think I’d become an entrepreneur and start Grounds & Hounds.
I grew up dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player. When life threw me some curveballs as a baseball player, I stepped into the beverage industry and grew my business skills. Down the road, I adopted my Dalmatian, named Molly, from an animal rescue.
Combining my business knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit, and love and desire to help more animals in need, I founded Grounds & Hounds, a business selling coffee (and gear!) fueling greater purpose and giving back.
My history as a baseball player turned entrepreneur
Growing up, the only thing I ever thought I would do is play sports. I grew up in western Pennsylvania and played sports. I was always an athlete first and everything else second. I had a shot at playing baseball professionally in college but got injured.
After the injury, I had to come up with other career path ideas. Because I had grown up around the wines and spirits industry, it seemed like a good fit and was my only other career idea. My father ran wine and spirits distributors, so I was knowledgeable about the industry from a very young age. I only knew beverages outside of sports.
My first job was at Korbel Champagne Cellars in California, and I learned a lot while I was there. My career progressed for a few years as I dove into vineyard management to the tasting room and everything in between. Eventually, I decided to pursue my MBA from Notre Dame.
I’ve always had the drive to be self-sufficient, push myself, and test myself. Whether you’re an athlete or an entrepreneur, you’re taking a chance on your abilities to create value. With this mentality, while I liked the stability and paycheck of a corporate job, the only thing I ever wanted to do was test myself. So I started thinking about entrepreneurship as a good fit for me.
Why Grounds & Hounds? I’ve always been an animal lover. I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, but that went by the wayside. I’ve always loved dogs and grew up around dogs my whole life.
In 2012, I adopted a malnourished brown and white Dalmatian named Molly from a rescue. Adopting Molly opened my eyes to the challenges of the animal rescue world, and I decided to use my background in business to help support the cause.
I set out to create an alternative business model that would provide continuous and growing funding through an economically viable business. I wanted to give value to customers and tie together the triple-bottom-line concept: you can do great, provide great service and products, and make a positive impact on society.
Early to the DTC world
My background in the wine and spirits industry translated to the coffee world and helped me understand the customer’s mindset and competitive set. Fortunately, we were also early in the DTC space.
When we started, I didn’t know much about running an eCommerce company, but there weren’t many digitally native coffee companies at the time. We had the opportunity to grow without an intense competitive set in the early days. We relied on trial and error, which allowed us to scale quickly through behavioral analytics and continuously improving paid media strategies.
Today, we’re more than a coffee company and are fortunate to give back to animals and support rescue initiatives and organizations offering pups second chances.
For me, the materialization of an idea and bringing it to life to provide funding back into the world of animal rescue is still the part I’m most proud of after all these years.
Growth over time
This is our eighth year in business, and since the beginning, we’ve always been a high-growth company. In the early years, we were growing at 100-200% per year. In the middle years, we slowed growth as we navigated funding and access to growth capital, so we slowed our growth to about 50% per year.
Once we started working with the institutional investor and private equity group Sterling Partners, it allowed us to start ramping up our growth again. From 2018 to now, we’ve grown on average at about 120% per year. It’s been a rocketship of growth over the last three years. We hope to keep the trajectory going for the foreseeable future.
A look back at the Grounds & Hounds product line
We started with six types of coffee, two t-shirts, and a mug. We started bare bones because my goal as a brand was to execute the mission and provide funding to rescue groups throughout the country. With this, we also wanted to engage with our community of passionate rescue-loving, passionate people who believed in what we did, an opportunity to buy with us.
With our initial coffees, I wanted to create at least one option for everybody. We offered a light, medium, and dark roast blend, along with two single-origin coffees and a decaf. At the core of these options was the coffee concept and creating products our customers would love. Most people are already drinking coffee elsewhere, so I strived to give a reason for customers to come to support our mission while having the best type of coffee that they loved.
We’ve expanded into designs, apparel, lifestyle items, and gear and hundreds of additional SKUs. The expansion was influenced more by my favorite fashion brands and how they create their overarching brand. I want you to come to our website and find stuff that fits what you live for. The dog is what connects all of us in the Grounds & Hounds family, but you still have other things you are passionate about, and our products are created with that in mind.
The brand has always been developed for people who love to spend time with their pups while enjoying things they love. We want to encourage you to spend more time doing whatever it is that you love with your pup through our products.
In the DTC space today, the overall messaging is becoming so competitive. It isn’t easy to get your word out there directly, even if there’s a large potential customer base who would love your product.
When we look at partnerships, influencer relationships, rescue collaborations, and impact partnerships, one of the big things we look for are finding people who align with our mission. We want people who believe in our mission and have people who support them that match the demographic for our customer base.
We’re looking for people who are authentically dog people, who love coffee, who are vocal about animal rescue and actively engage in it.
Programs for impact
For the impact piece, we have some amazing programs that work with hundreds of rescue groups. Our Grounds Crew program is more or less open to any rescue group that wants to be involved. This program is designed to offer the benefit and receive direct donations from their supporter’s purchases. It’s a micro-approach to finding new customers while tying the brand to a local impact.
Rescue Roast, our most popular program, is all about finding groups doing innovative, groundbreaking work. We donate 100% of the profits from our Rescue Roast blend to that group for six weeks. We’re looking for groups who truly get out there and do something that has never been done or is moving the needle in the animal rescue and animal welfare space.
Our marketing mix
We are very diverse in our marketing approach. There’s not one single activity we spend an excessive amount of time or money on, but here’s a look at our overall strategy.
Internally generated media and content creation
At the top of the funnel, we invest in internal media and content creation. We emphasize providing valuable or fun content to our community, but our content is entirely original. This is unique to us in that we have our own media and digital agency. We create as much content as possible to support the brand while creating a community feel for our audience.
We’ve been focused on our paid media strategy for years. Primarily we focus on optimizing our content and brand to be known as an industry leader while speaking to our customers as friends rather than “shoppers”.
Brand ambassadors and creators
We work with brand ambassadors and creators on social media, but many of these relationships came to us organically. People who love the brand come to us because they want to work with us, so it hasn’t been a big pay-to-play space for us. It’s more about finding people who are passionate about the product and mission and want to help us share it.
Word-of-mouth traffic and referrals
We’re fortunate to have an extremely high net promoter score, so we have a ton of word-of-mouth traffic and referrals from existing customers. We invest in and emphasize the customer experience and product because that leads to our customers doing a lot of the growth activities for us.
Additional strategies and elements
We’re starting to explore new alternative areas of media like streaming platforms and different social networks for paid media. We’re always working on Google SEO/SEM as part of the long-term media plan. Ultimately, in our marketing mix, we do a bit of everything. I do most of the outward-facing press and interviews. It’s a true omnichannel marketing approach that we’re tackling with a small team.
Advice for rising entrepreneurs
As any entrepreneur will tell you, encountering and overcoming obstacles is part of the game. One of the best sayings I ever heard was from Andrew Carnegie: “When gold is mined, several tons of dirt must be moved to get an ounce of gold; but one doesn’t go into the mine looking for dirt—one goes in looking for the gold.”
It’s the same process for entrepreneurship. It’s not about expecting the easy results just because you have a good idea; you know you have to do the hard work and move all of the dirt to get to the reward. Obstacles are a part of it, and they’re par for the course.
The brands and the companies that are the strongest see obstacles as opportunities to learn and grow. When you encounter something that’s not smooth sailing, you know that’s what you need to expect. You’ll either become a tougher company with a more resilient foundation and a better business because you weathered the storms, or you crumble because it’s too difficult.
My view is that you should become an entrepreneur precisely because it is difficult, and it is a challenge...that is what keeps it fun and exciting. Challenges and issues are inevitable and occur every day in some capacity as an entrepreneur. My suggestion is to accept them simply as opportunities to grow and strengthen your team.
Looking ahead: The future of Grounds & Hounds
We’re in a time right now where the world is changing as we come out of the pandemic. I’m viewing it as a new world and a new opportunity. There’s an opportunity to learn and challenge ourselves to become a better company and apply new ideas and concepts to this space.
Bringing the Grounds & Hounds brand to life via brick-and-mortar cafes excites me and is something I’m looking forward to. This will be a secondary piece of our business, and we plan to excel at it as a company. We want our customers and their pups to have a best-in-class experience.
I’m looking forward to getting people back to the office, getting together in person, building out our team, and growing as a company and brand. I want to create a bigger and more valuable company, continue generating funding for rescue groups, and become one of the most innovative and impactful businesses out there.