Honest Ecommerce

264 | The Power of Shared Values in the Startup Ecosystem | with Mike Pilkington

Episode Summary

On this episode of Honest Ecommerce, we have Mike Pilkington. Mike is the former CEO of Death Wish Coffee and is currently a cofounder of KEY Sparkling Water. We talk about building a startup business with a clear vision, assembling a winning team, strategic hiring and delegation, and so much more!

Episode Notes

Meet the trailblazer behind the freshest face in the sparkling water game, Mike Pilkington. He is the co-founder of KEY Sparkling Water. He’s a graduate of Wayne State University (BA - Psychology) and University of Detroit Mercy (MBA).

Going beyond the bubbles, Mike has a history steeped in grit and growth. From supercharging Death Wish Coffee into one of the top coffee brands in the United States to navigating the waters of Sysco's strategic acquisitions and leading Sysco Albany's operations, his leadership and vision have been second to none. 

Now, at the helm of KEY, he's here to deliver a gulp of authenticity with the right kick of real fruit all in a can as rugged as your ambition.

In This Conversation We Discuss:


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Episode Transcription

Mike Pilkington

Be extremely honest with yourself, surround yourself with honest people, and do it with extraordinary levels of authenticity. 

Chase Clymer

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating  real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. 

Today, I'm welcoming to the show Mike Pilkington. He's the former CEO of Death Wish Coffee and is currently a co-founder at Key Sparkling Water. 

Mike, welcome to the show. 

Mike Pilkington

Thanks for having me, Chase. Excited to be here. 

Chase Clymer

Oh, I'm very excited. You and I have chatted about so many fun things in the pre-interview and just now before this. So I'm really excited to get into this conversation. 

So quickly, Key Sparkling Water is your new adventure. Can you talk to me about the products that you guys are bringing to market and what you guys are up to there? 

Mike Pilkington

Yeah. So Key Sparkling Water was born out of this thought that you have this $30 billion industry out there that still has problems that need to be solved. 

And as we know, every product exists to solve problems. And I think about Key Sparkling Water as an opportunity for me to kind of come full circle in my career, whereas I feel like I was an early adopter to the sparkling water market. 

I learned a ton through my time with Death Wish Coffee and understanding the consumer, understanding branding and understanding really how to go to market. I think we'll talk a little bit about some of that later on. 

But really, we found some problems that this sparkling water market has that we feel like we're uniquely positioned to solve. There's really four of them in our estimation. 

One, that really, people are looking for healthier alternatives right now to sugary sodas and to alcohol. So the market for that is huge right now. 

And people, what we're finding, they're kind of sick of the same old options out there. So the opportunity for insurgent brands that are speaking that language right now, I think is huge. 

The natural flavor aspect of what people put in sparkling water bothers us. When we do presentation decks to retailers, we specifically say, you know, WTF are natural flavors.

We think that we have an opportunity to give a consumer a label that they don't have to search to understand what's in it. 

The other thing is that I quit drinking a couple years ago. And what I found is I still love college football. And I need something that I can drink all day. I think the craft beer industry calls it sessionable. 

And frankly, there's not any sessionable sparkling waters out there because as we like to think about it, heavy bubbles lead to bloat. And then finally, I was standing in the sparkling water aisle two years ago and I realized that, oh my gosh.There are so many choices out there, but there's not a lot of options. 

Everything looks exactly the same with the exception of a few outliers. It's got the same voice. It's got the same tone. It's got the same messaging, just packaged up slightly differently. 

And we feel like we're uniquely positioned to enter this what people call crowded space and disrupt. 

Chase Clymer

Absolutely, Mike. And you definitely speak with such a conviction and understanding that I can only say is from your history of building one of the more notable brands that we've had on the podcast. 

So how long have you been doing Key Sparkling Water? And what was the overlap, I guess, or lack of between leaving Death Wish and starting Key?

Mike Pilkington

So the concept for Key was born within a month after I started Death Wish. It was one of those things that I always kind of had on my long-term radar. And I think it all came to a point where it was the perfect time to start this. 

So it was about a month after and we started incubating this brand. And from September-October of 2022, we were able to launch on D2C in May of ‘23. So our vision was clear.

We had not only of the brand and who we wanted to be–even though we're working really hard on refining the voice and tone–but we also had a line of sight on how we wanted to go to market and be a true digitally native omni-channel brand because we understand that for this type of product to scale, it's going to have to be largely through retail. 

So there's about a month and we just ran hard, man. We ran hard. 

Chase Clymer

So let's just take it back a little bit in time. 

Mike Pilkington


Chase Clymer

Your previous position as the CEO of Death Wish Coffee...How did you meet Mike Brown over there? And what were you hired to do? 

Mike Pilkington

Yeah. Mike Brown. Fantastic, man. I really appreciate him. And I've learned a lot from him and I continue to learn from him. 

But I was–prior to Death Wish Coffee–I was running food service distribution facilities and specifically one here in upstate New York. 

And Mike and his team had come in to talk about the possibility of food service distribution for his cold brew product, and it was pretty clear that they weren't ready for it yet for various reasons. 

But we had a really solid meeting and a couple months after Mike reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, do you remember me?’ ‘Of course I remember you.’ 

And we started talking from there and then for the next year we met late at night because this is a relatively small community in bars, restaurants, and just kind of talked about what our vision should be for Death Wish Coffee. 

And really, my main responsibility was to come in and say, ‘Okay, I had responsibility managing type P&Ls.’

I've scaled organizations before and this was an opportunity for us to take this rocket ship and really add fuel to it and scale it. 

So I was brought there to scale it from everything–from the people aspect to the systems and everything in between and create a really good story of exponential growth that would be attractive to people outside and inside the organization. 

Chase Clymer

Absolutely. I think it's a very unique opportunity for me to ask you a question. I don't think I'll be able to ask much on this show. 

As a founder, there's always this pride and it's your baby. And how should you understand that maybe it's the right time to hire a CEO? 

Did Mike share with you why he knew he needed you to do this and he couldn't do it himself? 

Mike Pilkington

Absolutely. I think Mike Brown has many strengths, but I think the one that I would put at the top is he has an extraordinary level of self-awareness.

And when you have high self-awareness without an extraordinary ego, it allows you to make decisions that are really good for the incubation of your brand. 

And he realized that he is a brand expert, he is an Ecommerce expert, he is a visionary. But what he had as an opportunity to grow on in terms of his skill set is how to bring people together collectively to get them chasing one goal. 

And how do we take people from diverse backgrounds, different ways of thought and have them feel like this project that they're on is bigger than theirs and be able to do that through various stages of growth? 

Because as you know, as you grow, the business feels different. But there are certain fundamental things that I don't think have to feel different if your leadership is strong. 

And I think Mike recognized that he had carried the ball a long, long way. And it was time for him to hand it off to somebody else that had a different skill set than this. 

Chase Clymer

That's amazing. 

So if I was an entrepreneur out there listening and I've got some success under my belt. What would you say should I be looking at either within my business or in my skill set to maybe, like, ‘Hey, maybe you should hire out some more of these C-level positions.’ 

Mike Pilkington

I don't know if it's C-level positions, but when I think about it, I think you have to be very honest with yourself about what you brought to the table and what got you here. Because what gets you here is not necessarily going to get you there. And I think that's important to understand; surrounding yourself with really sharp people that aren’t yes-men. 

And I think Mike did a great job of that. And I think he would tell you if he was speaking to you today, that his team was pushing him as much as he was to find somebody that had the ability to take the business to the next level.

 So, you know, surround yourself with people that are gonna tell you the right answer is not the comfortable answer. I think that's important. 

Secondly is, I think, I don't love buzzwords, but I think sometimes they're really impactful. And I think the word authenticity to me is huge. 

So if you have the ability to be authentic to yourself, understand who you are, what you bring to the table, what you have the ability to learn, or I think more importantly, what is more costly for you to learn than it is to outsource. 

Because what I've found is a lot of these entrepreneurs, they can do it, right? They have the ability to do it. 

A great example with our business, we just hired an outside agency to manage our Amazon. We can do it, right? But we can't do it like Rico can, right? So it's like just that level of self-awareness to be able to be authentic to yourself. 

And then, really, I think that word authenticity goes to the next level and how we start to scale and surround ourselves–whether it be, and the reason I hesitated, because I don't think it's just that C-suite. 

Like when do you need to bring in people that are functional experts on the day-to-day blocking and tackling that force multiply the efforts of the team on a whole nother level? 

So I think really asking yourself, am I being honest? Am I surrounded by the right people? Do I have the ability to digest information that I don't love? And then more importantly, do I have the ability to understand what direction that points me in? 

And I know that that's a lot of words just to really say be extremely honest with yourself, surround yourself with honest people, and do it with extraordinary levels of authenticity. 

Chase Clymer

I love it, Mike. So let's go back to your position at Death Wish. 

Is there any major project that you helped lead the team on that you feel pretty proud about that you'd want to share? 

Mike Pilkington

Oh boy. Yeah, there's quite a few. I think what I'm most proud about though is... I'm going to go back to the word authenticity. 

So the scaling aspect is from a people perspective. I think we did a really good job scaling humans. When I was there, I was employee number 30. And by the time I left, I think we were at 85.And we did that with very little turnover in a very positive work environment. 

But I think what I was able to do is understand, again, like I said before, that we want diverse backgrounds, we want diverse ways of thought, but we want similar value systems. 

And what I mean by that is like, how do you show up every day? What motivates you? Do you find satisfaction in shared success? Do you have a get-shit-done mentality?

Do barriers really exist or are barriers just figments of what we've learned in the past and we've hit too many no's? 

When I think about scaling the business, I think we did a really good job bringing in people that had those types of mentalities and recognizing that they're all going to look different. 

For instance, Death Wish is known for this tattooed, edgy culture, right? I didn't need a C-suite executive, a director, or an executor to come in and have tattoos, but they had to have the capacity for edginess, right? 

And so really, I think I'm most proud of being able to assemble a group of people that were all better than me, that all were diverse and thought differently, but all had a shared value system. That's what allowed us to be so successful. 

And I think that when you talk about things functionally for the business, like line extensions, standing up an ERP system, entirely renovating our production facility, those are things that I think a lot of people would talk about as accomplishments. 

But I think about that as a product of the real accomplishment and that's putting really great people in a room together, in a company together that have a shared value system and just wanted to get shit done. 

Chase Clymer


I mean, that's zero to million, zero to even ten million as a brand. You can do that with toothpicks and duct tape and systems that are going to break and a very, very scrappy team. 

But then switching into what you were hired to do, it's a lot of human capital and a lot of relationships that need to be built and understood. 

Mike Pilkington

Quickly. Yeah. 

Chase Clymer

Yeah, exactly. 

Mike Pilkington

I saw this thing the other day. It was on LinkedIn. I don't remember who said it but they were talking about the whole adage of ‘fail quickly’ is antiquated. And I don't agree at all. 

I think what helped us be successful is that very few times that we failed or made mistakes, either from who we chose or them choosing us, we failed quickly, but we failed openly. 

We created an environment where you're never surprised. You always know where you stand because we care about you. We want people to go home knowing where they stand because I think if COVID has taught us anything, it is that unfortunate certainty is easily more palatable than uncertainty. 

The failing quickly aspect of scaling a business has far less pain when it's done in an open form.

Chase Clymer

Absolutely. And you said a lot about authenticity earlier, so I'm going to hold you to it. 

Any failures come to mind from your tenure at the helm there? 

Mike Pilkington

Without question. I've learned over the last really 3 to 4 years that resumes are distracting. 

Big companies on a resume are distracting. Degrees on a resume are distracting. Titles on a resume are distracting. 

And I think that we have to do a better job as leaders when we look to scale a business through the people, and really find the people that fit your business, not necessarily what they've done in the future. So understanding what I need people to have a capacity for. 

For instance, the people that we surround ourselves with, I need you to have the capacity to be passionate. I don't even necessarily need you to be passionate about Key Sparkling Water, but if you're passionate about your kids, your family, your dog, fishing, you have the capacity for passion. I know there's something in there that will allow you to be successful in the mission that we're all trying to accomplish.

And I think that I looked for the wrong things. I was impressed by the wrong things. And I think that as you grow a startup, and if I could impart anything to the audience today, is that the ecosystem of a startup is extraordinarily fragile, and small ripples in the water had tidal wave effects. 

So if we could do the best we can as we're kind of navigating the unknown, navigating uncertainty, learning how to deal with failure, if we can keep that water as cool, calm as possible by surrounding ourselves with the right people from the start, man, the resistance towards success in an uphill battle is so much less. 

So I think without going into specifics, there were four or five times during my tenure that I prioritized the wrong optics as I brought people in the door. 

Chase Clymer

That's amazing. Thank you for sharing that. Let's pivot a bit here. 

You now are purely focused on Key Sparkling Water. What are the different hats that you're wearing here at an early stage startup versus what you were doing at Death Wish Coffee? 

It's obviously still running the show but it's different priorities, I'd assume. 

Mike Pilkington

Oh, yeah. So I've learned to write a little bit of code. I've buttoned up my legal chops, interacting in the depths of the supply chain. I'm taking direct meetings with retailers. 

I mean, really, I think the interesting part is that because of my last experience, I learned so much from each of these individual people.

We brought in true professionals. They were experts. And you don't realize that when you're surrounded by people that are truly great at what they do, they're learning by osmosis as it happens. 

So like I'm finding myself in situations right now, frankly, that I've never been in, that I have this eerie sense of confidence because I saw that person do it before. And I've been in the room where that's happened. 

So really my focus really is on customer and consumer facing activities. And that's my role. 

My other two partners are focused on other parts of the business.

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Chase Clymer

For the listeners that are kind of unaware of Key Sparkling Water, where would you say you guys are as far as a business goes? 

Are you into retail yet? Are you primarily D2C? Are you looking at other marketplaces like Amazon? What's the mix? What's everything like? 

Mike Pilkington

So I think D2C, Amazon, retail, I think they all exist for different reasons. But I think they're all necessary for insurgent brands. 

We are trying to be successful and to be at scale. So our initial launch was for proof of concept on D2C.

So you can find us at keysparklingwater.com and that's kind of where we're working out the voice to tone the brand. And we've made some mistakes and we've refined and we're continuing that refining process to really determine how we want to show up. 

We launched on Amazon in July. We're finding success there. And like I said, we just hired Ricoh Retail Media to kind of pilot that ship for us. 

On February 1st, nobody knows this yet, but I'll share it. But February 1st, we will have our first retail placement, full placement at Coburn's in the upper Midwest. They're out of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and they're primarily in Minnesota, a little North Dakota, South Dakota, a little Wisconsin. So that's going to be our first retail placement in February. 

And we've inked a deal here locally with DSD that we're really excited about which will allow us to penetrate the retail market here in upstate New York.

Chase Clymer

So going back to launching D2C and using that to learn about things, what was that go-to-market strategy on direct consumers? How did you do that? 

I know a lot of listeners out there. They just want to hear how someone else did it. 

Mike Pilkington

Yeah. So... Oh, shoot. That's such a broad question. 

I had somebody ask me the other day, ‘How do you start a brand?’ Well, you just start. You literally just start. Sit down at your computer, Google something, and just start.

So our go-to-market strategy is I think we were very… I was very fortunate to be in the belly of the beast of one of the most successful D2C brands out there. All we did was we unwound that to its roots and then started building it back up. 

So we knew who we wanted our partners to be. We knew that we were going with Shopify. We knew that we were going with Klaviyo. We knew that we were going with Recharge for subscriptions. 

So we knew we had certain partners that we wanted to start with because we're familiar with them. And then from there, it's been about continuously refining, continuously refining. 

And by the way,we are far from perfect. We're far from great and we're far from where we wanted to be. 

But I think from an MVP standpoint, we're there. If you were in the belly of our beat, no one would think that–I don't think anyway, maybe this is a misplaced ego–but I think most people, if they look at the brand, they look at how we're nurturing the voice and the tone, wouldn't think that we're as young as we are as a brand. 

So really, I think to answer your question directly, how do you get started? Get started, have an idea of the partners that you want to choose. 

The ones that I name, they're simple to interface with. I'm not a tech guy by trade, but gosh darn, they make me feel like it sometimes because of what I've been able to accomplish using their platform. 

So I think starting with the base and just getting started and sitting down and having a plan and work to execute that plan. I didn't say anything there. But it's the truth. And people want to articulate it deeper than that. Just get started. 

Chase Clymer

Awesome. I love that. Just get started. 

I will, though, ask about the marketing of just getting started. How did you get eyes on this website that you stood up?

Mike Pilkington

So lead generation, lead generation, lead generation. The first thing we did, we knew it wasn't going to be necessarily, you know, nothing right now necessarily is about income for us. 

It's about generating interest, generating eyes, generating following, building that subscriber list, building our social following, right? 

So right from the bat, we went to an event in Lake George, New York, called AmeriCade, if anybody is in the motorcycle world.

 And we were able to get, you know, 1500 emails collected over four days to give us a really sharp base and we did it through a lead gen of grip strength. We're targeting who our consumer is. We are kind of like a masculine looking brand. 

So why not? What's your grip strength? Come on over here and give it a test. And we were able to create a personality from the brand through these interactions, which allowed us to begin building our marketable list of people that knew who we were. 

They could put a face with the email.It's a lot harder to unsubscribe from email when you know the face of who's going to see your unsubscription, right? 

So from the beginning, we were able to kind of front load an email list with 1,500 emails real quick from the lead gen that we had a personal connection with.

So for us, that was kind of how we got started. 

And we continuously had that mentality of showing up in person, generating a list that is meaningful. You know, as we think about what makes brands successful, I was fortunate to be part of a study over the last few years that looked at the core characteristics of insurgent brands. 

And that was defined by brands being able to go into mature categories, disrupt, win, grow 10 times the category. 

And really, it's about one of the key metrics, one of the key parts of the DNA of insurgent brands is that consumer connection. So us being able to create a consumer connection has been an extraordinary lead gen for us. And it really started priming the pump.

And then one of the things that we found at Death Wish through extensive research was that the number one way people heard about us was through referrals. And so our thought is that the more personal we can make a brand which people otherwise feel is untouchable, it's gonna spread. 

That was our strategy on how to get started with Lead Gen. And then we've had some success with Friend Media. And here's what I will tell you, nobody thinks about this.

And I'm so thankful for Death Wish for teaching me this. 

Chase, this world is extremely accessible. Like you want to get to Post Malone? There's a way to get to Post Malone. Don't just say, how do you get to, there's a way to get to Post Malone. 

And when I think about the value of earned media, we're finding that communities love to prop up really good stories. 

And for us being here in upstate New York, whether it be The Times Union or the Albany Business Review that did pieces on us, it's not very hard to get people to want to talk about good stories in the community. 

And so that is another way that we put a lot of eyeballs on us really, really quickly in a way that kind of enriches everybody around us. 

People can feel good about a startup story in their backyard. That causes this emotional response locally for people to want to incubate, have ownership over the building of the brand. 

And I think a lot of insurgent brands think about Death Wish, the Liquid Dust of the World. People love to be first on those bandwagons. 

And so, yeah, I mean, to us it was about events, showing up authentically, putting a face behind it to allow for meaningful lead generation, and then really taking advantage of earned media because your local markets, they want to talk about you. 

And when they talk about you, someone else is going to want to talk about you, and someone else is going to want to talk about you. 

So that's again, get started. 

You're starting a brand. You're launching on D2C, call your local newspaper. Call your local business review. They want... They're looking for stories like you. 

Chase Clymer

That's amazing advice. And something that we actually did when we started the agency eight years ago, we just reached out. It's not that hard. 

You can talk to anyone you want on the Internet. Look at this. I'm interviewing Mike. I hit him up on LinkedIn. It's that easy. 

Mike Pilkington

Yeah. Did you know what happened with that, quick story? 

Chase Clymer


Mike Pilkington

In the thought process, if the whole world is accessible, the day before you email or you reached out to me on LinkedIn, I emailed Jamie.

I reached out to Jamie, Joe Rogan's producer on LinkedIn. And I said, hey, you don't know me, but save this because I'm going to be on your podcast someday. 

Then the next day, you reached out to me. And I'm like, all right, man, that's a great example of just putting your thoughts and ideas out in the world and see what comes back to you. 

Chase Clymer

That's amazing. 

Mike, for those listening, and they're curious to check out your new adventure with Key Sparkling Water, they want to give it a try. 

Where should they go? What should they do?

Mike Pilkington

Check us out at keysparklingwater.com and we are also on Amazon. So check us out. Tell your friends and order from us, we'll send you a special note. 

Chase Clymer

Awesome. Mike, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing so much.

Mike Pilkington

Thanks, Chase. I appreciate you, man. 

Chase Clymer

We can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

You can subscribe to the newsletter at honestecommerce.co to get each episode delivered right to your inbox. 

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Lastly, if you're a store owner looking for an amazing partner to help get your Shopify store to the next level, reach out to Electric Eye at electriceye.io/connect.

Until next time!