Lara Gottlieb Nikola said she isn’t afraid to compete with giants.
“I built not only a product, but also a brand, by myself — and I am getting a piece of that market share,” she said.
Nikola, founder and owner of Smart Sips in Brick, has successfully staked out a cut of the e-commerce coffee corner by manufacturing fun, uniquely flavored, single-serve coffee, hot chocolate and cappuccino cups for Keurig machines.
Flavors such as Sriracha honey almond; brown sugar bourbon; deep fried churro — nothing like what you’d typically get from Starbucks or Green Mountain.
“I come out with at least six new and unique flavors about every three months,” she said.
The best part is, Smart Sips’ flavors — much like the brand’s marketing, package designs and social media campaigns — are all Nikola’s own.
“The good thing about being a small business is that I don’t have to ask anyone for anything,” Nikola said. “I just do it.”
It’s one of the ways she has been able to grow her company into a $1 million business.
The other is utilizing what she learned from growing up in an entrepreneurial family.
“I knew I wanted to start an e-commerce company, because that is where the world is trending,” Nikola said. “I also wanted a product that would be a repeat buy, and thought it’d be cool to create something that is a staple in someone’s day — something that people look forward to.”
Nikola, an avid coffee drinker herself, successfully created her brand in 2013 while still working in her career in newspaper advertising.
“But I started with flavors such as French vanilla and hazelnut, which just couldn’t compete,” she said.
Nikola said it turned around when she began to focus the same creative energy she used to develop the brand into creating unusual flavors.
“When I hit a wall, I say, alright, I get it — let’s try something else,” she said. “That’s the only way to grow. It just took a little while for me to find my niche.”
An unexpected career change also helped her find the right marketing style for her business.
“One day, after I had just had a baby and was spending about an hour each day with him, an (executive) with whom I had never spoken with came over to my desk and began yelling at me for not being at a work event on a Friday night,” Nikola said. “This just so happened on the day I had planned on giving my notice. It was on my calendar.
“However, my boss at the time refused to accept my resignation because she thought I was quitting over him.”
Instead, Nikola was offered a new position in digital operations as a search engine optimization specialist.
“I had no idea what SEO was, but I’d be able to work from home and consult,” she said. “I was then able to learn the marketing skills that have helped me to grow exponentially.”
Smart Sips has since become Nikola’s full-time job, as the company currently sells more than 6,000 boxes each month of more than 40 flavors of regular and decaf coffees, cappuccinos and hot chocolates.
Each 24-count box retails for $16.99.
“We ship thousands of products to Amazon, Walmart, and Jet each month,” Nikola said.
She and her husband, Frank Nikola, vice president of operations and warehousing, are quickly running out of space in their 1,200-square-foot warehouse in Brick.
“By the end of June, we will have more than 100 (stock keeping units),” Nikola said.
Nikola said she is in the process of developing new products, including a bagged coffee line (“to reach those customers without a Keurig machine”), 48-count boxes and Smart Infuse shakes and creamers with added vitamins and protein.
“We also want to be able to provide a quality gift item before the holidays that makes 100 cups of coffee with endless flavor combinations,” Nikola said. “Our idea is to be able to mix and match flavors between 10 four-ounce bags of coffee in a reusable K-Cup, so that coffee lovers can be their own barista.”
If there is anything Nikola said she has learned, it is to trust her judgment.
“I have learned to act on absolutely everything,” she said. “I don’t ever have an idea that I just sit on. I start exploring it the next day in order to try to bring it to life.
“If you have a thought, if you want something, just do it! If it doesn’t work, at least you know tried. Just imagine if it does!”
Nikola recently took her own advice and started exploring new networking opportunities.
“This year is all about growth, not only for my business, but also for me,” she said. “It hasn’t always been easy for me to just walk up to somebody at a networking event and say hello, but, I’m doing it, and it’s fabulous.”
Company: Smart Sips
Annual Revenue: Approximately $1 million by the end of this year
One More Thing: Lara Gottlieb Nikola, founder and owner, said she used to feel guilty about spending time away from her 2- and 4-year old children. “I don’t anymore because I’ve achieved work-life balance,” Nikola said. “If my husband and I need to work, we bring our kids with us and give them something to do, like taping boxes. My father always owned his own business, and (my siblings and I) were raised to think it was our business, too. I want to instill in my kids the same work ethic and sense of ownership.”
Imagine being able to satisfy a craving for blueberry cinnamon crumble while consuming less than a third of the calories.
That’s what Smart Sips are for, Lara Gottlieb Nikola said.
“Drink your dessert,” she said. “Instead of having an afternoon or after-dinner snack, drink a chocolate cherry cordial or a white chocolate hazelnut truffle coffee instead.
“Without using sweeteners, we have very decadent flavors that will still satisfy a sweet tooth — and one’s waistline.”
Lara Gottlieb Nikola said she often takes offense to being mistaken for someone she is not. “I don’t understand why, after I’ve said that I created my own coffee company, some men continue to think that I am a stay-at-home mom.
“People think that I just have this cute little business making small-batch coffee in my house. But I do more in a day than most people. … If my husband had said he owned his own coffee company, he wouldn’t ever be perceived this way.”
It has frustrated Nikola how a woman business owner can be perceived so differently than a man. Therefore, she’s recently been attending multiple events around the state for women in business.
“Women are so supportive,” she said. “These women never would think, ‘Oh, how cute, you have a little coffee company,’ because we all know. We all deal with the same thing. We get that it is just a little more difficult for us, especially when we have families.”