By John Newsom News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Find a problem and fix it! That's the lesson behind the story of Maddie Tamblyn who invented a unique coffee sleeve that keeps her coffee nice and hot long after it is poured. This article takes a look at Maddie's journey into entrepreneurship which includes some experiences many women in business may identify with.
Maddie Tamblyn learned two important lessons during an internship last summer: (1) It's rude to get up during a conference call to microwave your coffee and (2) cold coffee is terrible.
So the Elon University senior did something about it. This fall, she invented a coffee sleeve -- the jacket that goes around a takeout cup of coffee -- that she says keeps her java nice and hot long after it's poured.
In January, on her 22nd birthday, Tamblyn squeezed her way into a business pitch contest on a visit to California and won it.
Now, she's looking for investors and wondering if making and selling coffee sleeves could be a full-time business venture after she graduates in May.
Tamblyn, a Cary native and business management major, sat down with News & Record staff writer John Newsom over -- what else? -- coffee at the university coffee shop. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
N&R: So where did the idea for a coffee sleeve come from?
Tamblyn: "I would grab coffee on the way to work (a summer internship at Credit Suisse in Research Triangle Park) and by the time you got to work, badge in, got up to your desk and actually started working, my coffee would be cold. I'd also be on really long conference calls and you can't get up and leave the phone and heat up your coffee. I found I was wasting a lot of money because I'd end up throwing it away."
N&R: What did you come up with?
Tamblyn: "It's a physical sleeve. The outside is cardboard. If you think about a typical cup of coffee, you need the cardboard to protect your hand from the heat. I had to stay with that concept. The outside is normal. The inside looks completely different, but it's not much thicker than a typical sleeve. ...
"It's sustaining the heat, maintaining the temperature. The only use of the current sleeves is to protect your hand. It doesn't heat or keep your coffee hot. ... Mine is doing what theirs is doing and keeping your coffee hot.
"Typically your coffee is poured at 140 (degrees). You drink it around 120. Really, anything over 100 is a good drinking temperature. Once you fall under that, it's not good -- it doesn't taste good."
N&R: So how does yours compare?
Tamblyn: "At three hours, the product is still 117 degrees. That's with it poured at 140 degrees. I use my product now -- it's not manufactured yet obviously because I need money (laughs) -- but it's really ugly. It still does the job."
N&R: The name -- MadDogg Heat Sleeve -- where did that come from?
Tamblyn: "My dad used to call me MadDogg when I was growing up, and my family and my best friends would call me that. My friends here do, too. For a while, I didn't know what I wanted to name it. So my parents were joking and said, 'Just call it MadDogg.' ... So I did and it caught on."
N&R: How did you end up in California at a pitch contest?
Tamblyn: "I started working on the product last summer. I started making physical prototypes in August. I was in a class called Innovation Dynamics, where they help you think about: Is this invention going to be successful? Is it different enough? Are you going to be sustainable? I did a pitch competition on campus in November (with three other Elon students) and we got first place.
"Then I found out about this Innovation in America course (a Winter Term course at Elon) that was going to Silicon Valley. I was like, I need to go on this trip because that's an entrepreneur's dream to be in Silicon Valley and be in that energy and that type of environment. ...
"I was begging my professors while I was out there if there were any pitch competitions. They had been kind of iffy about it. I think I just wore them down.
On the way (to San Francisco) my professor (management professor Kevin O'Mara) said, 'I have great news. I got you in the competition. You're pitching on Wednesday.' I had four days to prepare.
N&R: Was it hard?
Tamblyn: "I developed mine more as a conversation about my product, so it wasn't as tough as I thought. But there are specific points you have to meet and you have only two minutes. That was harder and more of a challenge -- trying to fit in all the information you need for investors in two minutes.
"I had been thinking about it a lot and I was really nervous, but also I was excited because this is what I had been asking for so I can't be afraid of it. I have this great opportunity; there's no point in worrying about it. That's easier said than done."
N&R: But you won, right?
Tamblyn: "They waived the entry fee because I'm a student and our class was visiting. They were like, 'Oh, we'll let her pitch for fun.' When they introduced me, they said, 'This is Maddie. She's from Elon.' And then he turned to the judges and he said, 'Don't be too hard on her.' I ended up getting the highest score out of all of them. It was kind of crazy."
N&R: Is the heat sleeve the first thing you've invented?
Tamblyn: "I'm constantly thinking about ways to solve problems. I have a journal of things. ... I haven't really pursued any of them except the heat sleeve and the other product I'm working on because none of them have been this good.
"This one, I didn't even pitch to people in the beginning. They started seeing it and it caught on. ...
"There's another project that I'm working on. I'm really excited about it, but I'm trying to not think about it. Right now I need to focus all my energy and my attention on (the heat sleeve). I haven't told anybody. But in the next few years I want to make it happen. It has to do with rain -- I can tell you that."