At one point in his life, Jay Sorensen managed a gas station in Portland, Ore. Then the company pulled out of town. So he dabbled in real estate. By his own account, he "wasn't very good at it."
Floundering, Sorensen wondered what he could do to support his family. The answer came when he spilled coffee on his lap.
"It got me thinking that there had to be a better way," said Sorensen, who began to notice that other coffee-house patrons were holding steaming cups between their thumb and forefingers to avoid burning their hands.
Sorensen's solution? A cardboard sleeve that would fit around the coffee cups.
He developed the idea, then offered it to Starbucks. The then-nascent chain wanted exclusive rights and it was "dragging its feet" about the product. So Sorensen went out on his own, putting his last finances on the line to found his company, Java Jacket.
"At that point I had about six months of living expenses," he said.
Sorensen borrowed $3,000 from his parents to hire a patent attorney, and he ended up piling up credit card debt to have 100,000 coffee cup jackets made from waffled, recycled cardboard.
"I had to pay for the order up front," he recalls. "It seemed like a ton at the time."
The day he picked the prototypes in his pickup truck, Sorensen returned to the cafe where he had originally spilled the coffee on his lap. He had no appointment but was told he could see the owner if he was willing to wait a bit.
While he waited, he read about a coffee trade show to be held a week later. He had no money to attend. A few minutes later he was introduced to the cafe owner, who immediately bought some jackets.
"He was kind enough to ask, 'Do you need a check now?' I said, 'Sure, that'd be nice,'" laughs Sorensen. He promptly used the money to attend the trade show, where he got orders from 150 cafes. His wife, Colleen - now company CEO - followed up with hand-written notes and a sample sleeve to the other 3,500 trade-show attendees.
The efforts paid off big time. Today, the family-owned company sells between 20 million and 25 million sleeves a month, including neighborhood cafes to national chains.
The success is as sweet as that first sip of coffee in the morning. But one of the things the couple enjoys most is being able to give to others in need. Java Jackets supports numerous charities, including Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Humane Society of the United States and Coffee Kids, which provides aid to families and children who live in coffee-producing countries.