business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Fascinating story in Fast Company about a libation delivery system that didn't really catch on until the the Spanish flu of 1918, at which point it became what the Smithsonian later would call a "life-saving technology."

You know it better as the Dixie Cup.

Fast Company writes, "As any VC will tell you, timing is one of the crucial stars that must align for a startup to succeed. But what if timing isn’t right for a startup?

Chances are, timing won’t be exactly right. To succeed, you must survive until it is."

In other words, you have to wait until it becomes essential.

The story notes that "in 1907, Boston attorney Lawrence Luellen created a cup. It wasn’t made of glass or metal - the norm at the time. Instead, it was made of paper so it could be thrown away after use. While not earth-shattering in our current context, in the early 1900s there were no disposable paper tissues or paper towels. A cup made of paper was a novel idea, one with a noble goal: Luellen hoped his paper cups could help stop the spread of disease."

The story goes on:  "When Luellen invented the paper cup, which he originally named the 'Health Kup,' the timing wasn’t great … Communal metal drinking cups known as “tin dippers” were commonplace. A single 'tin dipper' could be shared by hundreds of different people. If that sounds gross, it was. But scientists were only just beginning to understand how contagion was spread. As a result, when Luellen and his cofounder Hugh Moore went to market with their paper cups, the product didn’t fly off the shelves. It’s hard to sell a solution to a problem people don’t know they have."

But then the Spanish Flu hit.  And people knew they had a problem.

"Suddenly, drinking out of a disposable cup became a matter of life and death," Fast Company writes.  "In response, Luellen and Moore launched an advertising campaign to drive the point home and rebranded from the Health Kup to the more memorable Dixie cup in 1919."

The irony:  "With the success of Dixie cups came other disposable products, such as Kleenex in 1924 and paper towels in 1931. This also led to new and environmentally harmful materials such as polystyrene finding their way into consumer products."

So here's the question:  What will be 2020's Dixie Cup?  (Zoom, maybe?)

The answer, I suspect, will be Eye-Opening.