Need Customers to Try a New, Unfamiliar Product? Give it Away for Free.
One summer night in 2017, a friend texted me at 1 a.m. with some news. A chocolate company she knew was leaving its retail space on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, Calif. Did I want to take over the remaining three years of the lease? she asked. I replied instantly: Yes!
The next morning, I told my team about my decision … sort of. “We’re doing a fun little thing,” I said, trying to make it seem light and easy and not costly or work-intensive. I didn’t want to spook them; I’m definitely the risk-taker of the group. But in truth, I’d committed us to a lot of unknowns. We were an online-focused business trying to get Americans to drink mushroom tea. That alone is a tough task. Now we were about to go retail for the first time -- on the hottest (read: expensive) street in L.A. And I wanted to use this space to operate a “Shroom Room,” a sort of a café where everyone gets complimentary ’shrooms.
It was crazy. I wasn’t even sure what it would cost to operate. But now, I know it was the right decision. By taking this path, we’ve been able to reach thousands of new customers.
The Shroom Room struck me as a solution to many of our problems. The first was distance. As a digital-first brand, we rarely interacted face-to-face with our customers. And yet, every time we went to an industry show, we’d meet tons of enthusiastic people who loved our drinks. I wanted a way to capture that energy all the time. At first I explored doing a pop-up, but it was cost-prohibitive and labor-intensive. I wanted something longer-lasting and unique.
The second problem to solve was skepticism. I get it: We want America to drink mushrooms, and that’s a tall order. There are some cafés in the U.S. that serve mushroom-based tonics, but they sell for a whopping $10 per drink. That’s no way to gain new fans; the only people who buy a $10 mushroom latte are people who already love mushroom lattes. I wanted to attract new people. Once they tried it for free, I was sure they’d feel the benefits and become regulars.
And the third problem was stagnation. I didn’t build this company by playing it safe. Many people scoffed at my idea of selling mushroom drinks. Now we’ve gained traction and reach hundreds of thousands of people monthly, but I still want to rebel. I want to continue to take risks. The way I see it, I got this company where it is by doing things differently. Why change your ethos as you grow? I never want to be the founder who finds success and then becomes risk-averse. That’s not me.
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Once we signed our new lease, my team got to work. We decorated our space with Nordic vibes and put a sign outside: come drink mushrooms. As soon as it was set up, people began coming in with the most amazing reactions -- either total confusion or incredible excitement. “What is this? Tell me everything!” they’d say. And that is how the conversation around mushrooms starts.
Has it cost us money? Sure. The staff, the rent and the product are all real costs. But still today, more than one year after we opened, new people keep arriving. It makes me confident that we’re achieving our mission. I mean, my goal is to disrupt the way American consumers think about mushrooms. That requires a strong statement, and a new way to look at them to change people’s perception.
Recently, major developers in New York City approached us: Would we want to open a café in Manhattan, too? Of course, there was only one right answer. Yes, we would. And so we’re opening it early next year. We also custom-built a Mushroom Mobile (named Mauri) that is touring around the country. One person at a time, we’re getting people on ’shrooms.
Whatever business you’re in, I urge you to have the courage to follow your heart. I love this line from Stevie Wonder: “Time is long, but life is short.” He’s right. We work hard, but we should do what’s fun.