One of those Days
It has been said that spilling hot coffee on your lap wakes you up faster than drinking it. In Jay Sorensen’s case the scalding liquid that interrupted his morning ritual also delivered a lightning bolt from the skies above in the form of a novel idea that would completely revolutionize the act of drinking coffee in America: The Java Jacket.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this singular event changed the course of his life forever, bringing him fame and fortune. But at that particular point in time he was quite literally down on his luck. His family-run service station had its lease terminated by Shell Oil and a new career in real estate was going awfully.
As he cleaned the coffee spill off his trousers and departed the drive-through he made a decision to invent a solution to handling hot coffee paper cups on the go. He knew only two things at this point: It had to be simple and it had to be cheap.
How annoying! We've all been there, but its it's these small irritations that are waiting to be solved by savvy, observational inventors. Follow Jay Sorensen's example!
As with all creative pursuits, experimentation would be the lynchpin for success. His first steps in this direction involved designing an entirely new insulated cup that could replace paper cups. But he soon gave up on this idea due to the intricate challenges of nesting and folding cups in the packaging process.
Something else bothered him, too. Research indicated that only around 40% of coffee cups were scalding hot when handed out to customers on the go. The eclectic mix of modern day beverages - including iced coffee and vanilla lattes - were much cooler to handle. This necessitated that the final product have a small and light footprint.
Fortuitously he also had two industry trends on his side that further motivated him to continue his journey: historically, coffee drinkers in America had been using a second paper cup to offset the scalding heat. Besides the environmental considerations, this also cost retailers an additional 3 cents.
Thus, retailers would welcome a cost-effective solution that could be used exclusively on the extra-hot coffee paper cups but not the cooler java delights, such as iced coffee. His product had to be adaptable to these needs in order to be successful.
Through trial and error he hit upon the idea of a cup sleeve, using embossed chipboard or linerboard. At one point he also looked at corrugated paper but discarded this idea due to higher cost. Ironically, Starbucks would patent their own version of the coffee sleeve years later; more on that below.
His first workable prototype also had problems. The insulated cups would not stack easily during shipping prompting him to try a cardboard sleeve, which he then discovered were not great insulators.
Fumbling in the dark, he next considered paper towel and toilet paper as possible candidates for the sleeve. The smooth texture and appearance gave him some confidence and he approached a manufacturer to turn his idea into a customized product. He forked out $15,000 for 100,000 sleeves based on his idea and started knocking on doors to get his product commercially in front of customers
That first door that opened would also be shut several months later, but for while Starbucks showed some interest in acquiring an exclusive license for his product. In the end, Sorensen had to walk away from the deal due to unrealistic demands made by the coffee titan.
But the gritty entrepreneur knew now that his product had “game”. It also now had a name: Java Jacket.
He decided to try approach Starbuck’s rival, Coffee People who promptly ordered 10,000 sleeves on the spot! He spent the last few dollars in his bank account on a trade show booth where he received an additional 100 orders. He was as they say, on his way!
He also made the prescient decision to protect his idea with a patent. Getting patent done correctly and quickly are two contrasting requirements which I examine in one of my educational videos “Why patenting is like an egg and spoon race.”
His previous back and forth with Starbucks, had now escalated to a new level: They began test marketing their own version of the coffee sleeve claiming that their prototype had been developed independently of discussions with Sorensen.
The gritty inventor was having none of this, however, and filed a cease-and-desist order which initially prompted Starbucks to back down. This was a short-lived victory as the coffee giant then designed an offshoot product which it subsequently patented. They called it the Coffee Clutch.
His invention would however remain the category leader. He officially launched the Java jacket in 1993 with less than $20,000. Eight years later it would be generating $8 million in revenue off 250 million sold units.
Today, roughly 1 billion Java Jackets are sold each year to over 1,500 clients, showing the gigantic reach of a tiny product and a determined inventor.
As the Smithsonian reports, there had been previous attempts to build similar devices way back in the 1920s and 1940s, but these were aimed at the opposite extreme: Cold condensation found on cold glass bottles.
But Sorensen’s invention is considered a masterclass in simplicity and innovation, many calling it one of the most elegant micro-inventions of the 20th Century.
It also again highlights the incredible possibilities open to entrepreneurs when they use the power of observation to solve a minor annoyance that other’s miss. Even if your financial situation is a mess and your employment prospects look bleak, inventors like Jay Sorenson and Sara Blakely, which I write about here, capitalize on their failures to scale the summit of success.
You can, too.