Paul and Serena Berthelsen are a self-proclaimed “coffee-crazy pair”. Their coffee journey started out in Kenya, Africa, where they both lived for several years.
Kenya is renowned for its beautiful highland plantations and ‘fruity’ coffees, and was the very place that sparked their love and appreciation for coffee.
Serena grew up in Kenya, and attended boarding school in the United Kingdom and university in the United States. She now serves her community in the healthcare field.
Meanwhile, Paul had moved over to Kenya after graduating university in Australia. He quickly fell in love with the country and its coffee culture, which prompted him to chuck aside his law and finance degree to be a farmer and trader in Maasai land instead.
He started a commodity trading business first before venturing into agriculture, where he established one of the largest cereal farms in the region. He began with a small plot of only 300 acres of land, and gradually built a farm spanning over 12,000 acres.
The couple spent the next two years in Hawaii, where they continued to explore the biodiverse coffee plantations. They eventually settled down in Singapore, where Paul discovered a gap for freshly roasted on-demand coffee, which he deems a “very necessary market”.
Combining the appreciation and passion for fresh coffee with Paul’s past farming experience, the duo decided to start Perk Coffee – sourcing high quality, specialty coffee, and delivering it to your doorstep within 48 hours of roasting.
A one-stop shop for all your coffee needs
“I’ve always been into coffee. My first [business] idea was to actually start my own cafe since I wanted to drink fresh coffee — ideally, coffee that was roasted within a few days,” Paul, co-founder of Perk Coffee, told Vulcan Post.
“So I figured, ‘why not start a business that could solve this?’ Instead of a cafe, which is capital intensive and competitive, I figured the online space would be less crowded and offer more opportunity.”
Perk Coffee is pretty much a one-stop platform for all things coffee. It offers different coffee options (whole beans, ground coffee, drip bags, pods), as well as a range of coffee equipment and accessories.
The platform also value-adds with educational content such as brew tips and guides, as well as information about the coffee beans and their provenance.
In an effort to help customers bring the coffee experience to the comfort of their own homes, Perk also offers coffee subscription services so customers can enjoy freshly roasted coffee delivered directly to their doorstep.
Their plan is very flexible. Subscribers can easily pause their subscription, reschedule their next roast date, or change coffee types with just a few clicks. They also don’t lock down customers by charging in advance as they only bill you on the day of roasting.
Subscribers can also get a better price for their coffee at up to 20 per cent cheaper than one-off orders.
Ultimately, their ambition is to help more people understand and enjoy the at-home coffee brewing experience at an affordable price.
It’s a win-win for both consumers and farmers
“Perk is like your good friend who simply loves his coffee. While we really know our coffee, we don’t over-complicate things and we’re certainly not coffee snobs. We try our best to make specialty coffee approachable and fun,” quipped Paul.
“Our target market are coffee lovers, both the aficionados and novices. To be fair, our best customers are usually those who begin their home brewing experience with us from scratch, and discover the incredible variety and wonders in the coffee world.”
The co-founders are committed to buying responsibly. Their coffees are ethically sourced from all around the world from dedicated and reputable farmers who look after their land and employees responsibly.
They support farmers by ensuring that they pay above Fairtrade rates for all of their coffee. This is particularly important for Paul, who has been a farmer himself for 19 years.
He finds that most farmers are not adequately compensated for their work. They are often disadvantaged by middlemen, who markup their products. Although the farmer has done most of the work, they are only paid peanuts.
While their beans are sourced from overseas, they are roasted right here in Singapore.
With coffee, it begins to stale as soon as it’s roasted. To maintain freshness, it needs to be consumed within a few weeks of roasting.
Perk’s unique “roast to order” model solves this problem by conveniently sending you freshly roasted coffee — one pack at a time — at an interval that suits your needs.
They roast their coffee twice a week and send out the beans within 48 hours of roasting, so customers get to enjoy coffee at its best, at peak flavour and aroma. This also means that they never keep excess inventory so there are no stale beans lying around.
Perk Coffee also prides itself on its specialty-grade coffee, which scores a high 80 on a scale of 100 by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). This point score is awarded after stringent tasting by professional coffee tasters called Q-graders.
Their coffee prices vary depending on the method of preparation, pack type, and subscription versus one-off purchases. A pack of 10 drip bags start at S$14, while a 250g pack of wholebean or ground coffee starts at S$19.90.
Although prices may be higher than some coffee brands, the freshness and quality that they offer is something that makes them stand out from the rest.
Building its pool of customers, which are core to the business
“When I started Perk, I had practically zero experience in the tech and digital space, so it was a steep learning curve. However, I concentrated on what I knew best, which was to build relationships with my customers,” shared Paul.
“I remember every single one of my first 50 customers. I would share with friends, and hustle by attending farmers’ markets and unpaid events, just to get a chance to talk to people and get the word out about my new business.”
He would then personally reach out to each one to get firsthand customer feedback. He vividly remembers all the teething issues Perk Coffee experienced when it first launched — from website issues, to delivery delays.
“I treated every problem as an opportunity to connect and form a relationship. What I learnt was that customers are human beings [too]. When you’re honest, open, and apologise for something, despite the fact that it may be out of your control, more often than not, people understand.”
“In fact, most people love to support a startup or an underdog, especially if you can involve them in some way and make them feel part of the journey.”
The fact that Perk Coffee puts a lot of effort in their marketing campaigns and after-sales support also speaks volumes in how they manage to successfully grow their customer base.
According to Paul, their first 500 customers were acquired organically via word-of-mouth.
“We believe in our product so much that we’re not afraid to run a free trial, or to give your money back if you’re not happy with the product to always go the extra mile to make a customer happy.”
Covid-19 is a double-edged sword
When the circuit breaker in Singapore happened, e-commerce boomed and Perk Coffee saw a surge in online orders as people scrambled to find an accessible alternative to cafe-quality coffee.
Paul was unfortunately stuck in Kenya during that period — for a good six months, in fact — because the airport was shut down.
Although their software system was well-equipped to cope with the demand, they still faced a couple of issues in other aspects.
“At one point during the circuit breaker, our last-mile delivery provider was so backlogged that normal delivery times of one to four working days became two to three weeks. We were bombarded with tickets, and our customer service was not large enough at the time to handle the volume,” recounted Paul.
“We had to immediately start sourcing for more customer support, pulling all-nighters to make sure that our customers were satisfied — from [handling] refunds to last-minute changes with door-to-door delivery providers. It cost us a bomb, but we value our customers, so it was something we just had to do.”
Although the pandemic posed some business challenges at the start, on a whole, it propelled their business as more people turned to online options, even when it came to getting their coffee fix.
“Those who had previously been curious about homebrewing could now explore it with us, who had both the coffee and brew gear to get them started, and getting on a subscription allowed them to have one less thing to worry about,” said Paul.
It’s now the largest online coffee subscription startup in SEA
Perk Coffee is a bootstrapped startup, which took about two years to break even. Their business model is purely online, and 80 per cent of its revenue derives from subscription.
“The subscription model works really well for coffee since coffee drinkers are habitual; a model that delivers fresh quality coffee in small pack sizes on a regular interval that matches consumption is a no-brainer,” remarked Paul.
It reached its first 1,000 active subscribers within a year since inception, which has since grown more than 10 times to over 10,000 subscribers in 2020.
Beyond Singapore, Perk Coffee has also spread its wings to expand into Malaysia in October 2018, and then to Hong Kong in October 2020.
“We saw synergy in having an enlarged presence, and we’re proud to be the largest online coffee subscription [service] in Southeast Asia,” said Paul proudly.
While he intends to hold on to this title and conquer beyond the region in years to come, he acknowledges that the coffee industry is a highly competitive space, especially for traditional retail, which sees the regular entry and exit of several coffee shops.
The e-commerce space — which is Perk Coffee’s bread and butter — is no different. Paul observed that there has been an influx of new players, making it very crowded and competitive.
“Despite this, we see an opportunity to build a stronger community and to use technology to understand our customers better to ensure we give them the best possible experience — not just in terms of the coffee products, but also in terms of education and engagement.”
Moving forward, Perk Coffee plans to make use of quality content and the growing interest in specialty coffee to engage and educate customers. It also plans to stay abreast of changes and innovations in the industry to maintain a competitive advantage.
“I’m optimistic about the future of ecommerce and specialty coffee in Asia. We’re living in challenging yet exciting times, and things are changing rapidly. But one thing’s for sure, coffee is not going out of fashion any time soon,” summed up Paul.
If you’re a coffee enthusiast and new to Perk Coffee, feel free to try out its specialty coffee under a free trial here.
Featured Image Credit: Perk Coffee