At 30 years old, Mike Brown put his life savings on the line and moved back home to live with his mother. Why? So he could afford to follow his dream of starting a business.

Five years later, millions of voters in the QuickBooks “Small Business, Big Game” competition chose his company from the 15,000 small businesses that entered. And Death Wish Coffee became the smallest business ever to have a Super Bowl ad.
death wish coffee

(Photo: Mike Brown, owner of Death Wish Coffee, winner of Small Business, Big Game | via: Intuit QuickBooks)

Perhaps the biggest winner of Super Bowl 50 won’t be the Broncos or the Panthers. It may be Mike Brown’s 12-person small business, Death Wish Coffee, purveyors of the world’s strongest coffee. (And when they say, “world’s strongest coffee,” they mean it.)

Sometime during the game’s third quarter, 100 million Super Bowl viewers will see a 30-second commercial for Mike’s small business, the winner of this year’s Intuit QuickBooks contest called Small Business, Big Game. More than 15,000 small businesses entered the competition for the chance to have a commercial promoting their business created and aired at QuickBooks’ expense. 

Not including the media coverage the commercial and the Death Wish Coffee story has garnered,  the value of the air-time and production of the commercial has been estimated to be more than $6 million. (To get a sense of the production quality of the commercial, Oscar winner Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi) was the cinematographer).

In addition to the commercial, the competition’s winning small business owner received some superstar mentoring from celebrity-entrepreneur Bill Rancic, the first winner of The Apprentice. (Rancic has worked with Quickbooks on the entire Small Business, Big Game project.)

About 48 hours before the game, founder Rex Hammock spoke with Bill and Mike about the experience of becoming—at least for one very super night—the most famous small business in America.

On the experience of having fame and business success occur simultaneously

death wish coffee

(Photo: Bill Rancic, left, winner of the first season of The Apprentice, assisted QuickBooks in the Small Business, Big Game project, including mentoring Mike on the game-changing challenges he’d face following winning the contest. | via: Intuit QuickBooks) | Mike, this has to be a surreal experience you’re going through. Are you having an “out-of-body” thing?

Mike | Yes, definitely. Every morning when I wake up, I say, “Thank you God, this is actually real.” It’s been like a dream, it really has. | Bill, you are one of the first people who many of us can recall seeing become both a business success and celebrity at the same time—on one of earliest reality game shows I can recall. You were the first winner of The Apprentice and in the process, became somewhat of a rockstar. What kind of advice have you been giving Mike about handling the celebrity part of what he’s already going through, but is about blast off even more?

Bill | I don’t know if Mike needs much advice. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s well grounded. Most importantly, he has surrounded himself with great people. Lots of of times when you are thrust into the spotlight quickly, you aren’t prepared for the opportunists you instantly attract. Mike is not the guy who is going to fall prey to those. He understands the opportunity that’s been handed him. He’s worked hard for it.

Most importantly, he’s grateful.

When something like this happened to me 13 years ago, I was always very grateful for what was given to me. I never, never took it for granted. I was given an opportunity of a lifetime and I seized it. Mike is being given the same kind of opportunity of a lifetime this Sunday—and he knows it.

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, the Death Wish Coffee crew took to the streets of San Francisco to build on the excitement the commercial has generated for the product.

On how a small business prepares for the orders that will pour in after a commercial on the Super Bowl | Mike, one of the most compelling parts of your story is that Death Wish Coffee will be the smallest business to ever have a Super Bowl ad. You have 12 employees now. How do you go from that to meeting the demand of the orders you’ll get Sunday.

Mike | A year ago today, we were a six person company. When the competion started, we were a nine-person business and now we’re a 12-person business. The people on our team are amazing—I don’t just hire anyone. At one point we counted, and each one of us had the responsibilities for 20 jobs.

They’ve been working sun-up to sun-down to make sure we do a good job. And we’re working with some vendors, all small businesses surrounding us, who are also working around the clock. We have two local roasters who are also working with us to make sure we have enough coffee to go on Monday.

death wish coffee

(Photo: The smallest business ever to have a commercial on the Super Bowl, this staff photo was taken a few months ago. The company now has 12 employees and several a network of supportive vendors. Oh, and another thing. Their product is helpful when working long hours. | via:

On why the voters found Death Wish Coffee such a compelling business to support in the contest |  Bill, all three of the finalists—and before that, the ten finalists—were great examples of small businesses at their best. But they were also very different versions of successful small businesses. What was it about Mike’s company and story that appealed to the millions of people who voted for Death Wish Coffee in the Small Business, Big Game contest?

Bill |  There is so much about Mike and Death Wish Coffee that resonates and connects with people on several levels. When he decided to start a business, he had no income from a trust fund or any fancy pedigree. He is a guy who put his life savings on the line and moved back home with his mother at the age of 30 so he could afford to start a business.

He built his business one order at a time, the old-fashioned way. And I think people really connected with that. That’s the American dream: You can have an idea and if you work your tail off and make the commitment, you can do it. Mike is a living testament of that. That’s what connected with people. They loved the idea. They loved the concept. But they also fell in love with the story and Mike’s ambition and work ethic.

How listening to customers helped Mike ‘pivot’ to success


(Mike says, “I wasn’t that great at owning a coffee shop,” but he learned how to succeed by listening to customers from behind the counter. | via: | Mike, you’ve said the idea for Death Wish Coffee came from what you learned by listening to the customers of your coffee shop. They would say, “give me your strongest cup of coffee.” But ironically, you’ve said you weren’t that great at running the shop, which was your original business idea. In the startup world, they would call that “pivoting.” Your success seems to hinge on your willingness to be flexible enough to view the conversations you have with customers as a roadmap to better opportunities.

Mike | One of the best parts of having my coffee shop—and not doing that great at it and not having much money to hire anyone—was that I had to do pretty much everything. That meant I was behind the counter all the time and I got to know the community—and be a part of the community. They became my friends. And every day they came to the shop early in the morning and we would visit. They would tell me what they wanted and I tried to deliver on it. So when they would say, “give me the strongest coffee you’ve got,” I started trying to do it.

On gratitude

(Video: While it may not have the production value of a Super Bowl ad, this thank you video has the heart of a small business and captures the reality of what the 12 employees behind the Death Wish Coffee brand are all about. Via: Death Wish Coffee, YouTube.)

On the importance of a commercial that not only promotes Death Wish Coffee, but celebrates small businesses in general | Bill, you’ve been around lots of small business owners who have found ways to succeed. Mike’s is a great story, but the greatest thing about it is that it represents the stories of millions of others.

Bill | And that’s the reason QuickBooks wanted to do Small Business, Big Game. They wanted to shine a light on small business, to celebrate what small business does for country’s economy, and the economies of each community where they are found.

The Death Wish Coffee commercial that will appear during the Super Bowl

Related Articles