Meet Peter Lee, self-proclaimed coffee snob, co-founder of COBA Coffee, and one of our newest seed capital recipients. COBA is rethinking the way we consume caffeine on the go, with its naturally caffeinated chocolate COBA Bar. We sat down with Peter to talk about all things coffee, and what he and his co-founders have in store for COBA in the future.
Peter was selected as a seed capital recipient after participating in the Accelerator at ICA, our growth-stage business mentorship program. This investment was made using the ICA Impact Note, ICA’s innovative investment structure that helps entrepreneurs prioritize growing good jobs, by achieving metrics like workforce diversity and employee wealth creation.
“Having good job growth that supports the local economy and provides wealth and equity to my co-founders and everyone else that we hire is a critical focus.” –Peter Lee, co-founder of COBA Coffee
What inspired you to start your company? I started out as a coffee snob — I built my own roaster. I disassembled an old propane tank and grill and put it over the fire. I would get my coffee from a local supplier and sell it to my neighborhood. As I started looking towards expansion, I went down to Ecuador and Peru to look for coffee farms, and I started bringing coffee back in my suitcases. I would host coffee bars with 10-15 people at my apartment and launched a Kickstarter as a concept to see if it would scale — it went viral. From there, I took four years off to study accounting, which was instrumental in staying organized and strategic in how I do business. We’ve been growing the company ever since and we're in over 90 stores today, and have received funding from ICA Fund and REI.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced as an entrepreneur? The food industry is an old system controlled by a handful of players with a low barrier to entry, so a lot of people can start up a food company relatively quickly. We have to differentiate ourselves from the other brands vying for the attention of very few buyers. At the end of the day, this is about proving myself fundamentally, and challenging my own insecurities to grow.
What’s next for your company? Rolling out into our first national retailer and enhancing our brand storytelling. I want to start telling the story of how great this product is for me, but we need our customers to do that. So being as raw and honest about our struggles and our wins is important in creating community within our customer base so that they can share our story with others.
What was the most surprising thing about your journey with ICA? Princess, Shibisha and Yui have been incredible. They walk me to water and let me drink from it. I pitched an idea about how I want COBA to be the next Mars, and the team said let’s go f*cking dream. Let’s take that step together. And they didn’t just give me their support and experience — they also gave me money.
What are the impact note metrics you’re focused on achieving? Job growth and making sure our early team members have equity. With the tech boom, there is a lot of equity that has been polarized to one side. Having good job growth that supports the local economy and provides wealth and equity to my co-founders and everyone else that we hire is a critical focus.
Learn more about COBA Coffee at coba.coffee and follow their Instagram to stay up to date on what they have in store. Peter is an Accelerator at ICA alumni, our accelerator program designed for growth-stage businesses generating revenue and looking to develop a plan to strategically grow.
In the News
REI Path Ahead Ventures Announces 2023 Navigate Accelerator Program Cohort, REI Co-op Newsroom, June 1, 2023
COBA Vanilla Brew Launches in Collaboration with MasterChef Finalist Ahran Cho, COBA Coffee, March 29, 2023
5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food, Authority Magazine, Nov 4, 2020
Introducing COBA — The Coffee Bar, Free Ventures, Oct 31, 2018