The K-cup story
Many years ago, John Sylvan had an idea: provide a hermetically-sealed, compact cartridge containing a filter and enough ground coffee to brew a single serving in a specially designed brewer. After the freshly brewed coffee was delivered, the remaining carcass would simply be discarded without fuss or muss. Sylvan’s brilliant idea came to him in the mid-80s. He did not begin working on the idea in earnest until the 90s. John and the company he formed had the forethought to apply for patents on his innovation.
Keurig, named after the Danish word for excellence, toiled through the 90s funded almost exclusively by investors perfecting the cartridge, which came to be known as the K-cup, and its associated brewer. John and his fellow founders were able to convince the investors that the benefits of the K-cup system far outweighed the simple fact that a cup brewed with it cost five-to-10 times as much as a traditionally brewed cup. Truth be told, the otherwise visionary investors really only saw a play for the corporate/office market where convenience outweighed cost: a niche market in the multibillion dollar coffee industry but one with potential sales at least in the tens of millions annually.
Around 1998, when Keurig finally started selling brewers and K-cups in earnest, it registered trademarks for the brand names. When the system took off, the competition was left scratching their heads. A new product segment had been created, one with terrific margins and one in which purchasers of Keurig coffee makers were forced to buy consumables from Keurig itself. The strong patents coupled with Keurig’s aggressive enforcement stance contrasted with the time, cost and uncertainty in developing a suitable non-infringing alternative, left potential competitors with no other alternative than to figuratively beg Keurig for a license to make their own versions of the K-cup.
Keurig and its successor in interest Green Mountain Roasters, who bought the company out in 2002, were under no compulsion to grant patent licenses, but wisely realized it was better to derive revenue from its competitors than to back them into a corner and force them to try and develop a K-cup alternative. If successful, the competitors would have jeopardized the company’s future. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer: The maxim rings true in business as well.
The Keurig system found a place not only in the office and commercial markets but in homes as well. The K-cup system has proven to be the biggest thing to hit the industry since Mr. Coffee killed percolators in the 70s.
One might figure Sylvan became a wealthy man. Sadly, inventors and innovators often do not make great businessmen. He had trouble getting along with the investors and was forced out for a mere $50,000 shortly before the company’s first production commercial brewer was released. In hindsight, perhaps he should have demanded a percentage. Suffice it to say, the sharks freely roaming the ocean of commerce aren’t as tame as those kept in primetime tanks.
As the product grew, Keurig continued to innovate and protect the improvements to the brewers and the K-cups. Even though the seminal patents were strong, they realized it would expire someday. Hopefully, however, improvements to the K-cup would mean competitors’ post patent cartridges would remain a step behind the K-cup in terms of cost, functionality and quality. To date Keurig has been issued 44 patents in the United States and has more pending all related to their K-cup cartridges and the associated brewers.
Patents weren’t the only intellectual property trick up Keurig’s sleeve: they also had trademarks, and trademarks don’t have expiration dates as long as you keep using them. Currently Keurig has 15 registered United States trademarks and about 35 more pending.
When the company’s initial patents expired in 2012, many articles predicted Keurig’s decline. Keurig’s competitors still face major obstacles. Any systems and cartridges they may develop might not infringe the expired patents but they have to be very careful not to infringe the remaining 40-plus patents. While the remaining patents are much more narrow, they do lay a minefield that competitors must navigate in developing their non-infringing alternatives, greatly increasing the cost of development. Stepping on a mine can mean an expensive lawsuit.
Even if successful in developing a suitable K-cup alternative, competitors don’t have a word or phrase to describe their coffee cartridges. If a competitor strays and improperly insinuates some connection with K-cups or Keurig, the company, which is now the 500-pound gorilla in the coffee industry, releases its pack of lawyers to shut things down.
If a competitor stays clear of the Keurig marks, it faces the monumental and uncertain task of educating the public about a new single serving cartridge without reference to the original – all at great expense and huge risk of failure. Ultimately, most of the industry players have or will decide to go the certain and predicable route of licensing Keurig’s technology and trademarks adding even more money to its $4 billion-a-year revenues.
Would there be a Keurig or even a single-serving coffee cartridge today if they had not pursued intellectual property protection? Its seminal patents helped garner investors in the 1990’s permitting the system’s development. The patents kept competitors at bay during its growth years of the 2000s.
Today, as the industry leader, its trademarks and patent portfolio continue to thwart competitors and allow it to maintain its position as the market leader. Sometimes my start-up clients ask me whether it is worthwhile to pursue patent protection on their idea. All I need to do is look over my shoulder and point to the coffee machine on the credenza and say, “Yes, it is.”