Imagine hanging out with your friend one night, and then waking up the next day to realize you’ve changed the entire course of your professional career—all on a whim.
That’s what happened to Braydan Young (BS, Business Administration, ’09) and Kris Rudeegraap (BS, Business Administration, ’08) in 2016, after the Chico State alums decided to turn their “fun side gig” of selling coffee gift cards into a full-blown business venture.
“One night, Kris and I sat down . . . and we were like, ‘Let’s email the top executives of Starbucks and try to actually get a meeting with somebody,’” Young recalled.
Their joint ambition and nothing-to-lose attitude paid off, in a big way.
“We started sending Hail-Mary LinkedIn messages to people, from the CEO all the way down,” he said. “We actually got a call back from them saying, ‘Let’s chat. We’ll give you 15 minutes.’”
The pair’s side gig became their meal ticket after a trip to Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle. That in-person meeting quickly led to a partnership between the entrepreneurs and the java powerhouse.
“We got a call from Starbucks and they said, ‘Hey, we would love to work with you guys,’” Young said.
Now known as CoffeeSender, the alums’ San Francisco-based business now counts more than 75 companies and 1,000 users as clients and is steadily thriving in the accessible world of e-commerce. The business premise is simple, with an easy-to-use service that allows businesses to send online coffee gift cards to clients, employees, and professional partners.
SurveyMonkey, for example, has sent CoffeeSender’s digital coffee gift cards to people who complete its online surveys. Other companies have gifted them with direct messages on Twitter, in hopes of boosting their chances of getting a response.
“The way I always explain it to my parents is, ‘Say you call Comcast and you’re pissed off about something. They can apologize by sending you a gift card [direct to your phone],” Young said. While customers head off to redeem their gift cards for a beverage, he said, Comcast has time to fix whatever problem drove the customer to call in the first place.
In case the notion of sending a digital $5 gift card seems a tad impersonal, keep in mind that these go-getters aspire to return old school business dealings to the sales industry—by using the Internet.
“Business used to be done with handshakes, and there used to be lots of conversations. [You’d] meet for coffee or a drink, and you’d talk about business,” Young said. “Business is done over email now, so we’re trying to make business more genuine, and help companies interact in a more human way.”
The venture has vaulted Young and Rudeegrapp into a multibillion-dollar industry. Worldwide sales of digital gift cards are expected to hit $14 billion this year, and comprise nearly 10 percent of the entire gift card market.
Building off CoffeeSender’s so-called “business-to-business” selling model, they launched an expanded service in January called Sendoso, which lets companies send physical and digital services and items to corporate clients, including lunch, wine, event tickets, special requests (one client asked for actual Hot Wheels toy cars), and—of course—coffee.
True to their old school values, Young, who is CoffeeSender’s director of sales and business development, and Rudeegraap, who is its chief executive officer, offer handwritten notes as a personal touch and to stand out from their competitors.
“Sending a package or a handwritten note is something people get excited about,” Young said. “The idea behind it is that email is overloaded, and direct mail is cool again.”
Young and Rudeegraap, who met at a party during their freshman year, make building a successful startup look easy, but Young assured that it wasn’t, explaining that “hard work is a given” and strong mentorship is critical to success.
He credits his business classes at Chico State and activities such as volunteering with the Associated Students—one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Northern California—with helping to shape his work ethic while giving him a “network of people that I still talk to today and bounce ideas off of.”
Guidance from Peter Straus, director of the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, also had a significant impact on Young’s growth as an entrepreneur.
“He taught me a lot of real-world scenarios that you would run into with business and to stick to your guns because you’ll get a thousand different opinions thrown at you, which could not have been truer,” Young said.
He also learned that “hard work is a given” for business success.
Straus, who remembers both Young and Rudeegraap as promising students, is not at all surprised by their success.
“Kris has a very fertile mind—very creative and intelligent—and he’s very driven, which is important,” Straus said. “It’s likely that students will go out into the world and spend a few years paying back their student loans, learning about the world, learning about industry, and then start a business. But hopefully they’ll be using the toolkit that they got here, and that’s clearly what happened.”