“I am a lifelong coffee lover.” It’s a declaration that the Founder and CEO of Fellow Jake Miller needn’t make. His affection and respect for the stimulant is imbued in the beautiful specialty coffee ware he makes for lovers of pour over and drip home brews.
The San Francisco based design outfit has been charming caffeine fans with their stylish and functional domestic pieces. In fact, Miller came up with the idea for Fellow through a university class project. He was undergoing his MBA at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the coffee lover chose to make a ‘twist’ on the French press for an assignment. He said he prototyped the product, debuted it on Kickstarter in 2013, and raised close to US$200,000. With this success, Miller launched Fellow, which he describes as “a start-up company aiming to help coffee experts and amateurs alike brew ridiculously good coffee at home.”
Miller achieves this with Fellow through functional design — an approach to making his coffee ware work so elegantly for their intended purpose, it infuses our daily lives with pleasurable convenience. But more than making things that execute a specific task well, functional design, at least in the worlds of fashion and home wares, tends to also value aesthetics.
“I am passionate about designing beautifully functional products for brewing beginners and world coffee champions alike,” Miller said.
Master of Messaging
With such an eagle eye focus on aesthetic and functional design, you could be forgiven for assuming Miller is professionally trained in the field. His professional background though is marketing.
Before Fellow, Miller was the brand manager of Caribou Coffee, one of the world’s largest coffee chains with franchise cafes across the United States and Middle East. It even has a few coffeehouses in Asia Pacific’s Indonesia. To give you an idea of the scale of Caribou, it has close to 300 storefronts in Miller’s midwest US home state of Minnesota alone.
It may not seem a smooth transition to go from an international chain that serves espressos in hundreds, if not thousands, of cafes around the globe, to a design company that creates niche products for lovers of pour over and drip home brews. But Miller nevertheless took key learnings with him. “My experience in marketing helped me understand the importance of building a strong brand that is differentiated and has a reason to exist in the minds of the customer,” he said.
“Fellow’s brand, not any one product, is our greatest strength. Each new product launch has become easier to market because more and more customers know Fellow and have an overwhelmingly positive experience.” Miller remains very hands on with his company.
“I’m still intimately involved with designing new products, working with our designers, engineers, and manufacturing partners,” Miller said. “Making is in my DNA.”
Specialty Coffee for All
Something else Miller is actively trying to make is an inclusive coffee culture. “Fellow is constantly trying to introduce more people to specialty coffee through approachable design. Unfortunately, specialty coffee and tea culture can be both overwhelming and intimidating,” he said.
According to him, they are trying to break down those barriers so anyone on the planet can say, “Hey, I think I can do this myself at home!” He continued: “I want to make sure we continue to help everyone find the fun in the craft of brewing.”
Miller does this by putting the people who will use his coffee ware front and center during design decisions. “First and foremost, understand your user and the specific problem you want to solve through your design,” he explained.
“During the design process create as many designs as you possibly can and then show as many users as you possibly can! User feedback is the key to launching something your users will love and actually want to buy.”
Miller has built a strong team to help him create approachable, useful and inclusive pieces. He recruited Jessa Strayer to join Fellow, a senior designer from Apple, the iconic brand with the reputation for making intuitive devices and software. Last year, Fellow announced two new recruits who specialize in the rare combination of coffee expertise and engineering: Jeremy Kuempel and Tom Carlson. They had previously worked with Miller as consultants on an early Fellow product, an AeroPress attachment called the Prismo.
The Coffee Ware in Question
So what are these fancy things Miller is introducing into the homes of style conscious coffee fans? Fellow make pieces like immersion brewers, pour over drippers, kettles, pitchers, canisters, and serving vessels such as mugs, glasses, and carafes. All these pieces are designed with features that enhance their crucial function.
Fellow’s immersion brewers, for example, claim to trump the traditional French press by preventing ‘gunky residue’ collecting in the bottom of your cup. Their pour over kettles have precision spouts and weighted handles for steady, controlled streams. Their canisters have a vacuum seal to prolong the freshness of coffee beans.
And these pieces are more than just functional but fashionable too. Fellow’s stylish kettles have been spotted in the Instagram posts of the rich and famous at home, like Kourtney Kardashian and Amy Schumer. The discerning eye of a film set stylist must have taken a fancy to Fellow’s ceramic mugs because at least one features in the series, Star Trek: Discovery. Miller’s latest Fellow release is a re-imagined “home grinder with cafe capabilities that reduces mess and noise.”
Don’t Design, Just to Design
“Fellow was dreamed up with the spirit of never having to choose between aesthetics and functionality,” Miller said. “Don’t design, just to design. Set out to solve a problem. Then, solve that problem in the most elegant way imaginable.” During the interview, Miller shared that he is inspired by brands like Nike, Dyson and Braun. And although sports gear, vacuum cleaners, and shavers may seem unlikely muses for coffee ware, these brands seem to share an ethos with Miller and his team, of respecting both function and form in everyday items so people find using them a joy.
Miller has been influenced most by Dieter Rams, the German industrial designer behind Braun and Vitsœ “long-living furniture”. (Rams developed a famous shelving system for Vitsœ that can be added to and adapted over a lifetime and move with people from home to home.) Fifty years ago, he created what has been affectionately coined, the ‘Ten Commandments of Design’. In a 2015 interview with Fast Company Rams summarized them like this:
“Good design is innovative. Good design must be useful. Good design is aesthetic design. Good design makes a product understandable. Good design is honest. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is long-lasting. Good design is consistent in every detail. Good design is environmentally friendly. And last but not least, good design is as little design as possible.”
No surprises our “lifelong coffee lover” and functional design fan Jake Miller has applied these golden rules to his coffee ware.
Which origin of coffee do you like best?
Jake: Ethiopian coffees are my go-to because of the fruity, floral, and tea-like flavor notes. However, as a team we are constantly trying coffees from incredible farms around the world. It’s so much fun to get to try a new coffee every day.
What do you do for leisure?
Jake: I live in San Francisco and enjoy surfing, playing the game Pop-A-Shot, and traveling back home to Minnesota for ice fishing season. Also, I love to travel. Thankfully because of Fellow and the global specialty coffee industry, I’ve been able to see so many new countries. Asia is our second largest market, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel extensively throughout China, South Korea, and Japan.
What coffee filter/maker do you use the most?
Jake: I use our Stagg [X] Dripper every morning. The steep interior wall increases the height of the column of coffee grounds which forces water to make more contact with the coffee as it travels through the dripper. Also, the vacuum insulated stainless steel body keeps the temperature constant and prevents heat loss during extraction.