By GREGORY ZELLER // Inventor Jeanne Cilmi is not reinventing the wheel.
But her Happe Holder still dreams big. Standing 8.5 inches tall on four sturdy legs, the portable, elevated cup holder aims to keep beverages out of the grass and sand when you’re picnicking at the park or beach – a modest goal, Cilmi admits, though not an unimportant one.
“I’m not curing any major illnesses here,” she said. “Just making a day at the beach a little nicer.”
A floral designer and school crossing guard in Northport, Cilmi has had other product ideas but never attempted to market anything before the Happe Holder, an homage to her boat, the Happe Ours, with the odd “e” meant to “mix it up a little,” she said.
The cup holder, however, inspired her inner inventor. In 2011, Cilmi earned a design patent for her four-legged friend, which keeps beverages grit-free by steadying them atop four legs that drive into the ground like stakes.
With a circumference of 5 inches, the holders can accommodate just about any beverage vessel you might bring to your barbecue: a beer can, a wine glass, a cup wrapped in a cozy, even “the large Poland Spring bottle,” Cilmi noted, “the big, fat one.”
Cilmi came up with the design herself and spent many months “perfecting the small idea,” she said. Research and design cost about $20,000 over the years, including prototyping in China, and the entire enterprise – now incorporated as ECJM Service Corp. of Huntington Station – has been self-funded by Cilmi and her husband.
While the original models were produced in China, the entrepreneur has hired T and A Tool and Molding of Farmingdale to mass-produce the holders. This summer, T and A produced the 20,000th piece, according to Cilmi, who noted a back stock of only 3,000 pieces – the other 17,000 have been sold, mostly through arts and crafts shows.
Cilmi also distributes the Happe Holder through her company website and in person, hawking them on Jones Beach and at Robert Moses State Park, among other places. But by far, trade shows are her best business, she said, followed by the in-person peddling.
With a new website designed by Design ME of Deer Park, she’s now looking to boost digital sales. Already, one low-tech attempt to improve her web traffic appears to be working: Cilmi inserts a small sticker promoting ECJM Service Corp. into each product.
That’s “helped tremendously” with her online efforts, she said, and is building enough repeat-customer momentum to carry the company until she can raise enough cash to update the Happe Holder mold and have the company’s info printed directly on the product.
However it’s promoted, the product’s No. 1 selling point is its simplicity. After Cilmi presented the holder at the August meeting of the Suffolk County Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club, club founder Brian Fried applauded “a practical, simple idea” with an easily accessible premise.
“Your cup won’t knock over,” Fried said. “So simple. And that’s a good thing.”
Cilmi agreed that the simplicity factor goes a long way.
“I get a lot of ‘why didn’t I think of that?’” she said. “They call me a genius, because it’s such a simple design, but it really does solve a problem.”
Of course, there’s no rule against solving problems with a little panache. So Cilmi has introduced the Happe Huggie, a strong, stretchy fabric that fits over the holder for a more personalized drink-steadying experience. The Huggie comes in 18 different styles and is “doing very well” at craft shows, according to the inventor.
With the 2015 beach season winding down, Cilmi is turning her full attention to those fall and winter shows. She’s signed on for four fairs just through October, she said, including the Country Fair at Argyle Lake Park, which annually attracts hundreds of vendors and thousands of visitors to Babylon Village.
Her product may be designed for warm-weather use, Cilmi noted, but her business is year-round – one of several lessons the entrepreneur has learned since taking the Happe Holder to market.
Other important lessons: The best ink is free – the holder has been featured on the “Today” show and in American Baby magazine – and the best outsourcing is done locally, whether you’re hiring someone to redesign your website or mass-produce your polypropylene cup holder.
Choosing T and A Tool and Molding over a Chinese manufacturer, Cilmi noted, saved on shipping costs and allowed “more direct control” over the final product.
“The quality of the product is better and I have more control over things like color,” Cilmi added. “It was always my goal to manufacture it here.”
Being able to fill its outsourcing needs with Long Island companies is one of the reasons ECJM Service Corp. is already “on the plus side,” according to Cilmi, who is “extremely comfortable with the success of the business.” But that’s not to say there’s no room to grow.
Cilmi – a “distant relative” of Suffolk County Leg. Tom Cilmi (R-East Islip) – envisions Happe Holders emblazoned with company logos as ideal corporate giveaways. That kind of expansion requires attendance at big-league trade shows that are currently beyond ECJM Service Corp.’s scope, however, so for now, Cilmi is satisfied selling packs of four Happe Holders for $13 and tacking on Happe Huggies when she can.
And she’s in no rush to commercialize those other product ideas that have come and gone over the years. Like her product, Cilmi likes to keep things simple.
“We’re very happy having one good idea out there,” she said, “and making it bigger.”