Josh Springer doesn’t have much free time these days. He starts his workdays at 5:00 a.m. and he usually doesn’t stop working until 11:00 p.m. Like many founders of startup businesses, Springer – who founded a company called GrinOn Industries in 2009 – wishes there were more hours in a day just so he could keep up with everything he needs to do.
A big reason Springer, 28, feels overwhelmed these days is because of a YouTube video that shows his invention: the BottomsUp beer dispenser and beer cup. Once you hit play, you see three young men dressed in black t-shirts standing around a beer keg. Then the action starts: the man behind the keg places two plastic cups on top of what looks like some kind of hot plate (it’s actually a modified Army plasma cooler). That’s when something magical happens. The cups quickly fill with beer - from the bottom up. And when one of the assistants grabs the beers and moves them to a table, nothing spills out. The reason is that the bottom of the cup is covered by a circular magnet that lifts up under the pressure from the keg to allow beer to flow in, and then the weight of the liquid in the cup forces it back down into place. The video continues for a full minute until the final astounding tally is given: 56 beers poured, an unofficial world record.
That video has been viewed some 3.3 million times since Springer posted it on YouTube last year as a kind of lark. “When the video went viral, it caught us off guard,” says Springer. “Now we’re seeing that the views are dropping and our phone is ringing a lot more.” In other words, that video has helped transform Springer’s invention from an online oddity into a breakthrough product that is now filling beer cups in some 25 venues around the country, including National Football League stadiums in Jacksonville and San Diego as well as Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, St. Louis is also home to one of the largest beer companies in the world, Anheuser-Busch. After first seeing Springer’s invention at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, executives at Anheuser-Busch ran it through a vetting process and not only recommended the product to concession managers around the country, they also recently bought the advertising rights to the magnets affixed to the bottom of each BottomsUp cup filled with a malt beverage they will sell in 2011. While Springer won’t disclose any sales figures beyond the fact that he sells his cups for 45 cents a piece, he admits that the deal with Anheuser-Busch has put his company on the fast track. “That really got the ball rolling,” he says. “I honestly believe we offer a game-changer in the way beer is dispensed. I believe that no one should have to stand in line to get a beer.”
This year promises to be a breakthrough one for GrinOn, which is named for Springer’s ever-present smile. Still Springer says that he and his good friend Mike Price, 28, who runs the operation side of the business, have experienced their share of frustrating moments in getting their venture off the ground. Their biggest challenge, interestingly enough, has always been convincing someone at the other end of sales call that they weren’t joking. “When you tell someone you have a dispenser that can pour 50 beers a minute, they hang up on you,” says Springer. “That YouTube video helped open a lot of eyes.”
The idea for his unique invention came one day in 2009 when, after drinking from a pitcher of margaritas at a Mexican restaurant, he had a vision. Bursting with excitement, Springer stood up and exclaimed to the surprised family members who had gathered for his father’s birthday that he was going to make a pitcher you could fill up from the bottom. At the time of that epiphany, Springer was working as the production manager of Phoenix Sign Co. sign shop in his hometown of Montesano, Wash., about a 30-minute drive from Olympia. He had always been interested in taking things apart and seeing how they worked. “When I got grounded, it meant that my dad had banned me from touching his tools in the garage,” he says. So, after returning home from dinner that night, he headed into his own garage and got to work.
A few days later, his friend Price, who lived in Oregon at the time, was headed up to visit Springer. Before he got there, though, he got a call from Springer, who was hoping to recruit Price to help him start the business. “I told him to pick up a keg of beer,” Springer says. “Which, for our group of friends, wasn’t out of the ordinary.” When he later unveiled his new invention, which filled up a pitcher of beer from the bottom up, Springer got the reaction he hoped for. “Mike was like, ‘I’m not sure what I just saw, but I’m in.’”
The turning point for the company came when, after an offhanded mention by Price, Springer designed a cup that could also be filled from the bottom up. Not only that, they could also place an ad on the magnet at the bottom as a way to make more money on each cup sold. The timing was key, as the pair had contacted Red Hook Ale Brewery in Seattle, about demonstrating their invention at one of the brewery’s popular movie nights, which were constantly plagued by long beer lines. The rub was that, when they got the go-ahead, Springer had just his single prototype cup. If they stood a chance of impressing the folks at Red Hook, Springer and Price figured they would need at least 1,500 cups – an investment that would eat up all their capital and require Springer to take a week off from work. After securing his wife’s permission – “You can do just about anything after you do that,” says Springer – Springer took his leave from the sign shop and bought the cups with his credit card. He and Price then recruited five of their friends who worked 20-hour days for four days straight rigging their magnetic cups by hand. Amazingly, they finished the job on time – only to find out that the event had been rained out. Undeterred, Price sent along a video of the dispenser at work, which resulted in a note back from the Red Hook folks that said something to the effect, “We’re not sure what we just saw, but you need to come and show it to us in person.” After a successful demonstration, and a few introductions around town, GrinOn landed an investment from a local angel investor that gave them the capital to manufacture their products.
While Springer is thrilled with where his company is headed – he and Price have plans to begin selling globally, for instance: “We get more inquiries from Brazil than anywhere else,” he says – he also hopes to hire a sales team so that he can get back to innovating new products, like a refillable pint glass, and improvements to his existing ones. “I don’t like to consider myself an inventor,” he says. “When I hear that, I think of crazy ideas and Doc from the Back to the Future movies. I like to think my ideas are more applicable to real world problems.”