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An entrepreneur’s journey

Some say entrepreneurs are born, not made. While I’m preternaturally disposed to avoid taking sides in this particular debate, I can share that my entrepreneurial journey began as a 9-year-old growing up in suburban New Jersey. 

 

By Craig Dubitsky, Founder at Happy Products

 
Keep on branding in the real world: Real cultural strategy in unreal times
Co-founders Robert Downey Jr. and Craig Dubitsky | Photo by Paul Abell for happy

One warm summer’s day, longing to obtain a particular comic book, it hit me that folks with disposable income might be particularly thirsty–perhaps my first recorded entrepreneurial impulse made a big jug of Wyler’s powdered lemonade, tossed in lots of ice, set up a folding table, and made a sign—my first stab at Out-Of-Home advertising. Even as a 9-year-old, it was clear that the bar for lemonade stands was fairly low. All-you-can-drink lemonade was an interesting concept, but I thought it might cause a supply chain issue. A higher-quality lemonade would be tricky—I only had a sugary powder, a few lemons, and a dream. I knew I had to create some sort of differentiated, better experience if I ever hoped to acquire that comic book! 


I didn’t have organic lemons or sugar (this was the 1970s), but I had creativity, ambition, and access to talent—in this case, other kids in my neighborhood. The magic always starts with (and comes back to) having a great team. Armed with an economical and ambitious labor force, my sole proprietor lemonade stand quickly morphed into a car wash and lemonade “experience”. I shouted about our affordable and amazing car washing capabilities to folks driving by, sampling and cross-selling lemonade while upselling washes and interior vacuuming (benefit claims are helpful–our smaller hands could get into all the crevices!). I employed every kid I could wrangle, proclaimed them all co-owners, and split the spoils at the end of the hot and tiring day. If memory serves, we each made something close to $10, enough to buy multiple comic books and candy. I looked at the world differently from that point on—there was always an unmet need waiting to be fulfilled, a team to be built, and an opportunity to do things just a little bit differently. 


The Learning Period 


I went off to college and brought a business with me--importing and exporting unique products between America and Japan. At school, I saw not a world of quadrangles, libraries, and Greek-themed parties, but one filled with unbridled business opportunities. Beyond making lifelong friends and meeting the person who would ultimately become my bride, my university experience was a capstone of revenue generation and entrepreneurial bootstrapping. 


Realizing that students spend any and all funds (whether earned or provided) and that they’re still in the formative stages of “executive functioning”, I turned my entrepreneurial attention to age-old student dilemmas such as, “we’re starving, and everything’s closed” and “how do I get all this stuff back home?”. I looked for simple, effective solutions I could provide with limited capital. I started two businesses that took deposits upfront--a student trucking business that transported peers’ belongings back and forth to campus, and a carpet business that custom-cut and delivered flooring to dorm rooms. Hungry students could order a pizza or sub from a school-sanctioned operation based in two of the dorms, available 7 nights a week until 2 am-  30 minutes later than Domino’s delivery window at the time.


Armed with half an undeclared music major, a BA in Economics, and a lot of optimism, I miraculously obtained a job on the floors of the NY Cotton and Financial Instruments Exchanges. I eventually became the base metals derivatives trader and London Metals Exchange Specialist at Citigroup, trading futures and options out of the US, London, Sydney, and Singapore. Now if you’ve come this far you’re likely asking yourself, “What does any of this have to do with entrepreneurship, branding, product, design, storytelling, or marketing?” Here’s the answer, brought to you by the late poet and singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” 


Across my various experiences, the key to creating a brand with resonance has come down to this playbook: identify the cultural and experiential cracks, empathize deeply and without judgment, and then bring the light. From commodities to currencies to culture, seeing what’s broken, what’s missing, and what feels “off” allows for the creation of what I like to think of as “emotional innovation”…and emotion tends to drive just about everything. Employing extreme empathy and a keen eye for the aesthetic, one can create products, brands, and experiences folks don’t merely transact with, but fall in love with. 


To further let the light in, I quit my role as a trader and followed my entrepreneurial and creative calling. Along the way, I was introduced to the co-founders of Method, appreciating the idea that household cleaning products could be elevated into attractive, natural, and effective pieces of functional art. I then co-founded eos, leading the design and creative for the company’s first products that remain trusted best-sellers. A jaunt down the aisle of a major drugstore led to my starting hello products, horrified that the global icon for good oral health was an extracted tooth. The language of the category was filled with words like “kill”, “destroy,” and “eliminate,” making fear and shame the major drivers for consumption—the impending threat of a painful dental visit or the embarrassment of a smile that didn’t shoot rays of bright light were the norm. There was an opportunity for some light here—perhaps a brand that looked and sounded friendly. I thought about naming this new brand something that would be the antithesis of cold and clinical, something more emotionally connected to positivity and smiles...and then it hit me—the friendliest word I could think of: hello. Boom. I called an IP attorney right away. Twelve years in, hello became the fastest-selling oral care brand in North America, and was ultimately acquired by Colgate, the biggest oral care company in the world.


Spot what’s missing.


More recently, I was asked by a major retailer if I’d be willing to walk some stores with various merchants, a request I immediately and enthusiastically accepted (nothing beats walking around retail, especially with a retailer). While wandering the coffee aisle, I pointed out things that struck me as odd. The coffee pouches that lined the shelves looked crinkly, slouchy, and like they’d be messy to live with and difficult to seal once opened. These mixed-material pouches would inevitably end up in a landfill, an ecologically insensitive and inelegant solution at best. The language and visual vocabulary of the category seemed filled with tropes; everything was “rich”, “bold”, “dark”, “select” and “robust”, with countless brown, gold, and green packages adorned with images of swirls, beans, donuts and steam-emitting coffee mugs. The coffee blends extolled romantic geographic and topographic references; far-away fields and mountains, with roasts and descriptors that all seemed forced. In terms of brand voice, a more evolved and modern sensibility was missing; a lighter touch would imbue more of a human element into the product, ultimately sparking a deeper emotional connection. The “cracks” were everywhere, and the “light” was hard to find. 


That store tour allowed me to recognize the potential to create something that could turn a commodity into a true desirable. Brands seemed to focus on how their commodity—coffee—was special. Yet commodities by their very definition are available, ubiquitous, and consistent. While there are certain attributes and characteristics to select coffees, roasting techniques, and agricultural regions, what’s really special are people. Yet most coffee brands seem to communicate what makes people unique is the coffee they drink. Hmm, an interesting crack, ready for some light to get in. People should always be the focus. And then it hit me: coffee makes people happy; what if a company called happy could make their coffee?


I was introduced to Robert Downey, Jr. by a mutual friend who knew we were both thinking about potentially entering the coffee category. Robert is brilliant, warm, hysterically funny, and completely in love with all things coffee. Our first conversation lasted over three and a half hours, covering everything from family and music to branding, the power of storytelling, and the transformative magic of beautiful, thoughtful design. Coffee plays a special role in Robert’s life, and it was this sincere, visceral, personal approach and deep love of the rituals around it that made him the perfect partner. He’s all-in on all things coffee, and his command of the subject is as real as his demand for an uncompromising product experience. Ours was going to be a natural and seamless partnership, and it’s been an incredible experience tweaking blends and flavor notes, writing copy, designing packaging, and meeting with retail partners together.


The real key to building a brand or business is to focus on emotional innovation. How would this new coffee company become culturally and emotionally relevant to people? Robert and I felt understanding people—not “consumers” or a “target audience”—would ultimately enable us to build a brand and a company that would be as enduring as it would be endearing. We discussed our brand name—happy—and how that name would work knowing not everyone is happy all the time. 

Happy Multi Product Shot

Naming and brand voice—everything communicates


We trademarked the word happy™ and began an exhaustive battery of visual exercises and experiments, attempting to bring the word to life through a brand lens. We played with countless iconographic elements and treatments but felt like they betrayed the power and immediacy of the word itself. The more we tried to design something clever with forms, kerning, and composition, the stronger our conviction around simplification grew. Less would be more, and we’d let the word “happy” itself do the heavy lifting. We admit it, we’re suckers for lowercase typefaces. They’re friendly with an inherent ease, and in a world of heavy, all-caps brands and busy typefaces, it’s a breath of fresh air that’s decidedly and intrinsically happy and approachable. We placed the logo on various pack concepts, brought them to stores, and put them on shelves. We realized immediately that to turn the category on its head, we literally had to put our simple, bold happy wordmark logo on its side. The packs immediately popped and made us smile. 


Speaking of packs, we wanted ours to be clean, counter-worthy, and distinctly different from everything else in the category. happy™ coffee had to make you smile when seen, touched, and housed. We wanted the packs to convey a considered sense—that everything about them had been well sorted and thought-through. Copy and tone of voice had to contain just the right balance of pertinent information and thoughtful whimsy that wouldn’t detract from the responsibly sourced, high-quality coffee itself. The descriptors of our blends take the stuffy pretensions typically found in the category, and add a subtle wink. Our miraculous medium roast features notes of chocolate and confidence, a great way to start the day..


The cuboid coffee packs have a small indentation for thumbs or fingernails to naturally fall into when opening the lid. The friction and level of fit of the lids were dialed in, creating a tight seal for freshness while providing a positive tactile sensation and sense of structural integrity when closed. Materials were selected for what we’d like to call practical sustainability. While the cubes are plastic, they are 100% curbside recyclable and are of a proportion that makes recycling them economically desirable for the actual recyclers. The substrate for the label was chosen for its great hand-feel, matte finish, and because it’s 100% curbside recyclable. The label takes a very small amount of glue to adhere, allowing for speedier production, while enabling folks to take the labels off easily and cleanly—helpful for those who want to repurpose the packs.


The idea of making a recyclable, resealable, refillable, and reusable pack excited us. We had visions of the blue Danish cookie tins our grandparents loved to store nuts, bolts, and sewing kits in being replaced by happy cubes filled with everything from office supplies and old USB drives to the occasional picnic lunch. Everything communicates, and every touchpoint offers an opportunity for discovery, so we designed a coffee mug-shaped UPC code. For those that discover it, we hope it brings a smile. Thoughtful design can go very far in soliciting positive emotional responses. But how could we deliver against the ideal of meaningful emotional innovation beyond form, tone of voice, and responsibly sourced supply chains?


Robert and I had a conversation on this very topic. “You know, not everyone is happy,” he said. “An amazing cup of coffee can only do so much.” We wanted to take the idea and ideals of “happy” to a deeper place that would holistically and authentically root the brand in the emotional side of where we felt it could and should live. In our thinking, happy demanded not just a mission or a purpose, but something with even more gravitas and authenticity. We identified NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as the ideal partner. As the largest grassroots mental health organization in the US dedicated to providing help and hope, the alignment of values was visceral and authentic.


As the creator of 988 (the emergency hotline expressly focused on mental health) and innovator in actionable wellness initiatives, pursuing a unique partnership felt organic. In our earliest discussions, NAMI shared the #1 thing they hear from folks: “If only I knew about you sooner.” This was the crack, and as marketers and storytellers, we knew that generating awareness for NAMI would be the light. We agreed to include a NAMI-specific QR code and contact information on all of our happy packaging and offered an equity stake in our company. We hoped to reinvent the relationship between entrepreneurship and philanthropy while taking our alignment and partnership to a level beyond the performative. With mental health affecting so many, our authentic, organic relationship with NAMI allows us to further deliver on our dream of meaningful, impactful emotional innovation at scale. Amazing packaging, branding, coffee, and deep purpose make us truly happy.



Delight to disrupt


People--not consumers--write their narratives through the things they choose to surround themselves with. As visionaries, dreamers, entrepreneurs, and stewards of brands, it’s our responsibility to identify the cracks, bring the light, and manifest products that elevate the everyday. Creating a bright spot in someone’s day is a noble cause and delivering happiness at scale is the ultimate reward. To all of my partners in creativity reading this, let’s remember it’s not about disruption, it’s about delighting; if you create something that makes someone smile and ask “Why didn’t anyone do this before”, you can change the world. If you ever want to chat about any of this over a great cup of coffee, please let me know, I’m all in.




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Thank you very much for this post. I really appreciate reading it.

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