How did it all start? The story of one "unmanufacturable" mug.
Updated: Aug 11, 2019
How did I come up with The Good cup idea? Well I didn’t.
Most people think that businesses start with ideas. This is a common misconception. If you know anything about startups then you know it always starts with a problem. “Make something people want” preaches YC, and I couldn’t agree more.
Businesses start with problems. Next step is to talk to your potential customers to see whether it’s a real problem for them. Do they actually actively search for the solution? Or do they just complain about it, but the issue is not that big of a deal? There is a world of difference between "yes this is kind-of-annoying" and "I searched for a solution some time ago - and I could not find anything suitable".
Then you come up with 101 ways to solve the problem. Then you show customers the solution and see how they interact with it. Then you re-iterate. Re-iterate again and again. Then you launch and hope that people are willing to pay for your product. Asking "would you use such a product” or “would you pay $10 for it?" - does not work.
People often lie because they do not want to offend you.
I used to have a job consulting at a large bank. There were a lot of people on my floor: developers, managers, consultants, data scientists. We had a big cafeteria where everyone one would get together for lunch and share food (and some gossip). The bank however did not provide any cutlery or plates or cups for their employees. Nothing. Eventually I noticed that even people who brought their own lunches from home would go downstairs to food courts and grab a pair of single use plastic cutlery. All this plastic which will never be recycled will end up in landfills. Globally, millions (possibly billions) of forks, knives, and spoons are thrown away each day. But like other plastic items, single use cutlery can take centuries to break down naturally, giving the plastic waste enough time to work its way back into the open environment.
Recently, I also noticed more and more people started carrying reusable coffee mugs e.g. Contigo and Keepcup. They look cool and people seem to remember to grab them before they head out to the office. But only 1 or 2 people would actually bring their metal flatware from home.
I also own a travel mug. One day I looked at it and thought - why not to slide a fork into a side wall of the mug? There seems to be enough space in it.
I quickly sketched how I imagined it would look like:
The design genius. And Alibaba struggle.
It seemed super simple and obvious. Just make a "pocket" in a side of a travel mug and slide fork into it. Then I thought - the mug's circumference is long enough to also hold knife, spoon and a straw.
I decided to take up some 3D design classes to learn Blender and Fusion 360 to be able to prototype the mug myself.
I quickly realized, however, that even though the tools are super cool but I'd still need some help with the modelling, if I wanted to finish my designs quickly. Good entrepreneur is never afraid to ask! I didn’t have to look far - I asked my instructor to help me. We discussed all the details and how I want it to look.
This is what was born as a product of our collaboration:
Next step in my simple plan included reaching out to suppliers on the platform. That place where you go if you want to make a quick buck or start a giant import - export empire. Place where you can find anything and everything just under 17 dollars. Alibaba. I thought I can try to manufacture 500 pieces and ship them to Canada. And then maybe sell them on Amazon and see how customers react. I am a strong believer that customers vote with their wallets - so sales and only sales would be a real proof of concept. That’s what they call lean startup.
We have put together a simple blue print, and I came up with a story.
The story of one unmanufacturable mug.
If you ever find yourself shopping for a supplier or a factory on Alibaba there are a few unspoken rules you absolutely have to oblige:
- Pretend much bigger than you are. Don’t ever disclose that you are "Kate-the-solo-founder with no office and no budget”. Play big game! Show that you are open to a big partnership and a lot of business together.
- Never say that you are a final decision maker. All my talks with Alibaba people would end with " I will check it with my supervisor and get back to you".
Ultimately these 2 simple rules will help you to negotiate the price down.
I came up with a story of a large Canadian consulting business which wants to buy these special mugs for their 7000 employees and clients for the businesses’ 20 years anniversary. And we already have a unique design in mind. I researched terminology used in these dialogs (MOQ, OEM, QC, LFGB etc) and also created a few emails with the same domain name (to cc my Big Bosses). Then I started talking to factories.
I reached out to 15 or 20 suppliers and was hopeful to receive my quotes within a week.
That did not go as planned. At all.
First obstacle - sharing files - G drive is prohibited.
Second (and the biggest) obstacle – the language barrier. Getting ideas across - is very tough. At the time someone told me that when you use Alibaba, you do not end up working with those who offer the best price or quality, but with those who can communicate best.
There was one more problem which I underestimated at the beginning. I did not exactly know what injection molding was or how it worked. So when finally all 15 manufacturers got back to me with a statement "unmanufacturable" - I had to go back to the drawing board. To understand what had to be changed I first had to study the molding process. What I learned - there was no such tool which could drill those "pockets" inside the mug's body. The design had to be re-done using the principles and understanding of injection molding.
Then something great happened.
My friend seeing my struggle referred me to his friend who was a professional mechanical engineer. I showed him the product - he laughed and told me he would be happy to help. We teamed up.
The struggle (continued).
We discussed the idea, design, requirements, budgets and got to work.
One of the ways to reduce the cost was using cutlery from a store like Ikea – so we do not have to invest and manufacture our own flatware.
This was the very first prototype he sent me.
We laughed (I also cried a little) and we decided we cannot escape custom designing our own “flat” cutlery.
After some back and forth and a few iterations later – new prototype looked much better. We decided to 3D print it.
This was the first time I was holding a physical product that I have actually designed. I was very happy.
For a short period of time.
There were a few issues with the prototype which were hard to discover on your laptop screen:
- The straw was too short. If we want to fit it into the mug's wall – then it would be not long enough to drink from that same mug.
- The newly designed spoon was too “flat” and you could not really eat any liquid with it.
- Access to cutlery had to be improved by increasing the size of the “pockets”.
- And a ton other details and mechanisms which had to be changed and improved.
The main thing now was - I did not like the look of it. Travel mug is a customer product and it had to look good. In fact, I wanted to look like an iPhone – no extra details. Simple. Flawless. I strongly believe that “Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible”. I wanted the entire design to become invisible.
Going back and forth we decided to give up the spoon because we felt like it was not doing its job well. We were, however, able to solve the straw problem by using “the telescopic” straw – which can be expandable and thus you could comfortably use it.
How did it all end?
Well it hasn’t. Yet. We are still polishing the design. Unlike in tech startups where you must release quick and dirty – nearly every week – break things as you go - and get customers’ feedback, manufacturing is different. You see – once I invest into the mold – we will not be able to change it (unless I invest into a new one). So you have to be very very confident in your design. Otherwise each small iteration will cost you a lot of cash.
Why am I sharing this? I want people to see that when you see a problem and think “wouldn’t it be great if someone just did this”. Maybe that “someone” is you? Yes, it is very hard and stressful (and ultimately you have to spend your own hard earned money). But it is worth it and interesting when you see the progress you have made. I discovered this whole new world and I am definitely not stopping.