June 14, 2024


Cason Crane, founder of Explorer Cold Brew, was “indoctrinated with a very strong sense of adventure from an early age,” he tells Entrepreneur. Both of his parents instilled that passion in him, but Crane credits his late mother, Isabella de la Houssaye, as “the ringleader” who inspired him to travel to more than 100 countries, compete on the reality TV show Race to Survive Alaska, conquer the Seven Summits as the first openly LGBTQ+ person and launch his Brooklyn-based coffee brand — all before the age of 30.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Explorer Cold Brew. Cason Crane.

Crane set his sights on tackling the Seven Summits after he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his mother, and when he was 19 and 20, he did just that, summiting the highest mountain on each continent with the Pride flag in hand. “She was the original explorer,” Crane says of his mother. “She was my sounding board for Explorer Cold Brew. So she was an inspiration for the adventures we’ve taken on.”

The idea for Explorer Cold Brew, which offers a beverage with caffeine levels ranging from 99% caffeine-free to 300 milligrams per serving, came to Crane during the pandemic. His husband introduced him to cold brew, and he became a big fan, enjoying it into the afternoon — but it kept them both up at night. When Crane’s husband suggested he switch to decaf — and Crane’s therapist recommended he find a hobby that harnessed his business acumen — he had his “lightbulb moment.”

Related: 3 Ways to Invest in Coffee, Other Than Drinking It

A quick Amazon search revealed plenty of cold brew options on the market, but none of them were decaffeinated. At the time, Crane was working as a consultant for Bain, so he immediately went into research mode, eager to find out what percentage of coffee-drinkers were decaf-drinkers. As it turns out, 10% of them are, and U.S. consumers spent $110 billion on coffee in 2022, according to the National Coffee Association — which meant a huge segment of buyers was being ignored.

However, Crane didn’t just want to bring a caffeine-free cold brew to market: He wanted to create a “caffeine-conscious” cold brew company that would allow consumers to choose their own adventure. So that’s what he did. In 2021, Explorer Cold Brew launched with a direct-to-consumer (DTC) model, taking advantage of the low barrier to entry, first on its website and then on Amazon.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Explorer Cold Brew

“It became clear to me that the ground was shifting beneath our feet with respect to ecommerce.”

But the ecommerce landscape was already changing, Crane recalls. “It became clear to me that the ground was shifting beneath our feet with respect to ecommerce,” he explains, “and that this business model that had grown quickly over the prior five years or so was potentially headed in a negative direction.”

Crane knew that it was time to think outside of the box — a lesson that’s just as important in business as it is in mountaineering, he says. He knew Explorer Cold Brew had to diversify its customer base, and he was willing to make some personal sacrifices for it. So when he received an Instagram DM from a casting agent with an invitation to appear on USA Network’s reality show Race to Survive Alaska, he reluctantly entertained an idea he would have dismissed under other circumstances.

The show required teams of two; his sister Bella would be his partner. “To be clear, my sister works in finance. I own a coffee company,” Crane says. “At the time, [I’d climbed Everest] 10 years ago. Also, when you’re climbing Everest, you’re not making fire. You’re not scavenging for food. So, yes, I have done things in the outdoors; I’m a very accomplished mountaineer, but that does not make me a survivalist. I want to clarify that because sometimes people forget that distinction.”

Related: 10 Simple Steps to Build an Exceptional and Efficient Team

“Thank god I watched a couple YouTube videos on how to make fire.”

Despite his hesitation, they submitted their application, and six months later, he and his sister were invited to Washington state for a final assessment. “Thank god I watched a couple of YouTube videos on how to make fire,” Crane says. “I practiced on the balcony of my Brooklyn apartment, which I think almost burnt the building down, but thankfully, it did not. I tried to practice in the bathtub and stained the bathtub.” The duo gave it their best shot, and two months later, they received a contract and tickets for a flight to Alaska departing in 48 hours.

Crane didn’t go into the experience with many details, and based on his knowledge of other adventure shows like Survivor, he figured that they’d be out there for a week or two at most. But the brother-sister duo would race to survive for two months, during which time Crane often repped the company with a brand-emblazoned hat — and didn’t have any contact with the Explorer Cold Brew team.

“I was in the Alaskan wilderness, literally starving and racing to survive,” Crane recalls. “It’s half like an adventure race — think Amazing Race, wilderness, map and compass — and then half Naked and Afraid.”

After two months in the wilderness, Crane and his sister would wind up taking third place in the competition.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Explorer Cold Brew

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“[It’s so important to] find people who have your back and that you can work with.”

Entrepreneurship, like climbing, isn’t a solo sport, Crane says, and while he was away from the business, his team stepped up, sustaining operations and ultimately making it possible for the brand to lean into grocery distribution. “In mountaineering, [an effective team] is literally life or death,” Crane says. “And in business, it might not be life or death per se, but it’s the life or death of the business. [It’s so important to] find people who have your back and that you can work with.”

The experience on Race to Survive Alaska was “much more real and dangerous” than he expected, Crane says, and unfortunately, when the show aired one year later, with 600,000 viewers tuning in every Monday night, the impact on brand awareness for Explorer Cold Brew was all but nonexistent. Even Crane’s personal Instagram follower count remained relatively unchanged, he says. “At first, this was a huge bummer,” Crane admits, “because it was one of the most miserable things I’ve ever done. Certainly, other than starting my own business, [it was] the hardest thing I’ve done, way harder than Everest.”

But things would turn around. About a month after the show aired, Crane attended a grocery trade show where multiple buyers approached him, recognizing him from Race to Survive Alaska. As it so happened, the demographic that watched the show just wasn’t as active on Instagram; he’d thought going on TV would help boost the brand’s DTC and social footprints, but it ended up translating into distribution deals. Now, Explorer Cold Brew is in more than 1,000 stores, has done more than $5 million in sales and has an 81% annual growth rate.

“Even if something doesn’t work in the way you expected or anticipated, that doesn’t mean that it was a mistake,” Crane says. “Say that [the grocery distribution didn’t work out]. While I might have been tempted to view going on this show as a failure, I don’t think that’s a healthy mindset. I think it’s this reminder that you have to go for things. If everything you go for is a sure thing, you’re not going for enough things.”

Related: You Have to Take Risks to Succeed. Here Are 4 Risk-Taking Benefits in Entrepreneurship.

“More often than not, it’s actually a reflection of what else they might have going on.”

Crane’s journey as a mountaineer and entrepreneur has also taught him to try to never give up on people, be that a stranger you cross paths with or a customer. He details one pertinent anecdote as an example: At 19, when he was climbing Denali with his Pride flag, a group of veterans harassed him for being gay. Later on, when he was approached by a different group of veterans on another climb, Crane feared they might have a similar response. But that second group of veterans was very supportive, even taking a photo of the flag to send back to LGBTQ+ veterans and folks in the armed forces, Crane says.

“More often than not, it’s actually a reflection of what else they might have going on or their pre-existing biases or history that they’re dealing with,” Crane adds. “And [it’s important] to accept that for the sake of your own mental health, but also to try to never give up on somebody.”

On the business side, Crane, who continues to interact with customers regularly, has encountered angry buyers on occasion, and he’s discovered a tactic to defuse the situation — one with a 100% success rate: Make the person feel heard. “Nobody is too far gone,” Crane explains. “They just care; they wanted to love it. It’s obviously a slightly different context, but not giving up on that person — certainly not ignoring them, actually reaching out to them, trying to understand what their pain point was and taking a step to fix it. People want to be heard. They want to have a good experience.”

Related: How to Identify the Pain Points That Make Customers Decide What They’re Going to Buy

“Then there are the things you do to keep yourself excited to get out of bed every morning.”

Crane wasn’t afraid to lean into what makes him special while scaling the Seven Summits, and he does the same in business, encouraging entrepreneurs to adopt a similar approach — to embrace what sets your brand apart. It’s Pride Month, Crane notes, and Explorer Cold Brew is a proudly LGBTQ-operated business. The company is certified by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and partners exclusively with queer organizations and artists, including singer-songwriter and actor Troye Sivan, comedian Matt Rogers and gender-inclusive cycling team Bad Pony Racing. Over the years, Crane has also raised more than $200,000 for the Trevor Project, the leading suicide prevention and crisis intervention nonprofit organization for LGBTQ+ young people.

Related: The LGBTQ+ Community Has $3.7 Trillion In Purchasing Power; Here’s How We Want You to Sell to Us.

Crane acknowledges that not every customer will support Explorer Cold Brew because of its partnerships, but he’s committed to running a business that reflects his values. “It certainly helps keep me going every day,” Crane says. “There are things that you do as a business owner to position your business for financial success, and then there are the things you do to keep yourself excited to get out of bed every morning. And I think it’s important as a business owner to do both.”



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