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INNOVATE

Why the World Drinks Espresso

How did coffee go from a cheap commodity to a gourmet drink? You have this man (and several other innovators) to thank.

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If the martini was the fuel of the Mad Men set, then espresso drinks are the life blood of the start-up entrepreneur. But that concentrated essence of coffee bean has more to offer: How it came about is an instructive story every founder should know.

Many entrepreneurs confuse invention and innovation. The former has to do with discovering or devising something new. Innovation, on the other hand, is bigger than invention and more complicated. It's an entire process—getting the brilliant idea is only the start.

You see this lesson nowhere more clearly than with the invention of espresso. The commonly identified father of espresso was Milanese inventor Luigi Bezzera, according to Jonathan Morris, a research professor of modern European history at the University of Hertfordshire. But the road between invention and Starbucks was long and Bezzera's experience offers five important tips for entrepreneurs.

1. Finding the real benefit of a product

Bezzera lived before widespread use of electricity, so keeping a pot of coffee at a regulated temperature was difficult. That meant single-shot brewing, which bothered business owners who didn't want to lose the time. Bezzera invented espresso as a way to force hot water through coffee more quickly than other methods and to reduce the time between a consumer placing an order and getting a cup to under a minute.

Can you imagine considering an espresso as a quick way to get a coffee fix today? Over time and further refinements, it became clear that the espresso method could deliver a better cup of coffee by maximizing the flavor and minimizing less pleasant tastes that accompany a long brewing time. Never assume that the primary benefit you identify is the one that will actually resonate with customers. It might be something you think is less important, but that people value more highly.

2. Innovation is an ongoing process

Bezzera was only one step closer to modern espresso. According to author Ian Bersten, Angelo Moriondo was the first to patent steam-driven brewing, and that was in 1884. Bezzera was a refiner—as important in innovation as original invention—who added features and moved Moriondo's concept from batch to single-shot brewing.

Innovation didn't stop with Bezzera, either. Desiderio Pavoni added an important pressure relief valve still found on machines today, while Giovanni Achille Gaggia replaced steam, which burnt the coffee, with a manual pump to create the pressure that made possible the frothy crema atop the beverage we know today as espresso. The lesson: You are unlikely to get it right the first time, so don't rest on your laurels and let someone else upstage you.

3. Good ideas need a lot of support

Bezzera didn’t have the cash to successfully market his product. He sold his patent to Pavoni, who then produced a successful line of machines. The idea itself was clearly not enough; success meant selling and running a business. Pavoni had the resources to get to market on a larger scale. Your work isn't over, even when you think you've perfected your invention.

4. Don't let being first blind you

Bezzera did have some canniness in business. When he sold the patent to Pavoni, he struck a licensing deal under which he could continue to manufacture and sell his own line of espresso machines. He traded an exclusive on the market for the ability to continue his participation. Rather than focus on protecting his status as inventor, he figured out a business model that would work for him and his invention.

5. Pull off your idea, and you might change the entire world

Who would have thought that an initial attempt to speed workers through their coffee breaks could influence culture, style, and fashion? You never know in advance how large an impact you can have on the world. Work steadily, but keep an eye on the market and be ready to take advantage of opportunity if and when it comes.

IMAGE: Flickr/mikepetrucci
Last updated: Feb 9, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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