A Slice on Jim Lamancusa, Founder and CEO of Cusa Tea & Coffee
The town of Boulder is known for a few things: college students, hippies, the outdoors and a bustling natural products startup scene. Jim Lamancusa is no exception to this, with over 15 years in the startup scene focused on natural and outdoor products. He started his own natural tea company, Cusa Tea & Coffee in 2016. Cusa began with instant teas and has since added instant coffee into its product line. To date, they’ve raised $2.5 million in a series A round.
Back in 2005, Lamancusa started in the foodservice industry with Eco-Products as their first salesperson. There, he learned “how to build teams” and “understand the foodservice industry”. Once the company was acquired, Lamancusa left to join growing probiotic juice company, GoodBelly, as their VP of Sales and Marketing. This move would give him grocery industry experience, which would come in handy when starting Cusa later on. After a few years with GoodBelly, Lamancusa left to pursue the outdoor industry with Dynafit, Salawa and Pomoca at their North American subsidiary in Boulder. Fast forward another few years, he missed the startup scene and decided to work for EcoVessel until he was laid off a year and a half later.
Lamancusa knew he wanted to have his own brand and had his head “on a swivel” looking for ideas until he was inspired while on a backpacking trip with his friends. They were all drinking Starbucks Via instant coffee (and hating it) while Lamancusa was stuck carrying around sopping wet tea bags. He wondered why there wasn’t a tea version of his friends’ instant coffee that actually tasted good. He went home and did a little research into instant tea, finding that the existing methods for dehydration sucked out the flavor and beneficial properties. Lamancusa went on to test these methods out for himself anyway, spending $75,000 of his and his wife’s money only to prove it was a “complete failure”.
Lamancusa had practically given up on the idea until his wife’s rose petal eye cream sparked a curiosity. How did they get the rose petals into the eye cream without losing the medicinal properties? Turns out they use an evaporative dehydration process. Eager to apply this method to tea, Lamancusa found a botanical extraction partner and spent the next nine months modifying the technology so that it worked for tea. The final product is a result of cold brewing loose leaf tea or coffee grounds, and then putting them in a pressurizer before dehydrating into a powder form ready to be mixed into hot or cold water. They’ve since won four medals from the Global Tea Championships, even outperforming loose leaf teas.
The journey hasn’t been without bumps in the road, however. The biggest hurdle Lamancusa faces to this day is “convincing people to forget what they know about instant beverages.” To overcome this, he’s deployed a free sample and demo system. Getting potential customers past the barrier of association has been critical for the growth of Cusa. CPG entrepreneurs may be skeptical of this tactic due to “freebie hunters”, but Lamancusa avoids this by asking customers to pay a shipping and handling fee when ordering online.
One risk Lamancusa took that “ultimately ended up being a failure” was attempting to go national with Sprouts from the get-go. Trying to operate nationwide made it difficult to do demos, which made it harder to convince people that this particular instant beverage defies their previous associations. They ended sticking with local grocers, King Soopers and Safeway, and focusing on growth within their home state of Colorado.
Location would play a role not only in distribution but also in building a network. The startup scene, particularly when it comes to natural foods, in Boulder is tightknit and supportive. Lamancusa was able to network with other founders and investors through nonprofit group Naturally Boulder early on. As a first-time founder, this was critical in the development of his company. “There are just so many questions you have as a founder and I almost feel bad for people that don’t live in a city that has this kind of community. I know it would be a lot harder to get answers to the questions that plague us all.”
After building his network and raising a Friends & Family round, Lamancusa began looking for venture capital. He took some valuable advice from his mentors to “interview your investors as much as they interview you,” and was able to find two fitting VC firms. “Some investors want you to bring back a certain percentage return and that can put a lot of undue stress on a brand. My investors are more ‘Yes, we want to see return but not artificially.’” This approach has worked best for Cusa, maintaining a steady growth rather than unsustainable high growth.
Over the course of his journey in the food and beverage industry, Lamancusa has gained some valuable insights when it comes to CPG brands. From Cusa’s failure attempting to go nationwide early on, he recommends other founders in the industry “pick a region and see how it sells before going nationwide.”
He also learned the value of creating more personal relationships with your customers. “Founders sometimes forget how important personal touch is with the customer. We do our own fulfillment and write a message on every single package that gets shipped out… I know it makes a difference for people and as much as we get stuck in spreadsheets and board meetings, we have to remember that those little personal touches are what keeps the customer loyal for the long haul.”
At the end of the day, Lamancusa measures his success by whether he’s having fun and making his supporters (investors and customers) happy. “The point of life isn’t to be stressed out. I don’t think anybody ends up on their deathbed and says, ‘Man, I wish I would have worked more.’” He’s excited for the future of Cusa and being able to create the work environment that allows him to explore his outdoor hobbies (he’s climbed 56 out of 58 fourteeners in Colorado). Lamancusa sees the direct-to-consumer business model growing and becoming their highest performing channel, while also applying their unique dehydration method to new products.
Jim Lamancusa got a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Colorado Boulder and his MBA in Marketing from Argosy University Denver. He gained 15 years of experience in the startup scene in marketing and sales with Eco-Products, GoodBelly, and EcoVessel before taking on the founder role when starting Cusa Tea & Coffee in 2016. Connect with Lamancusa on LinkedIn.