In 2016 I started a challenge to redesign Vietnam’s traditional Coffee Filter. What started as a simple sketch, grew into a full blown project that kept me busy for over 2 years and taught me business lessons I never could have learned working in a job.
This was my first product and I want to share with you lessons along the way from the first sketch, to prototyping, to finding a manufacturer in a foreign country and up to launching the product on Amazon.
The Starting Point
I love traveling. Traveling allows our brain to breath. It allows us to get the creative juice flowing. So was this trip to Malaysia where I came up with this project while sitting at the beach and sketching ideas.
Why I started this project
I believe that all designers should have some kind of a side hustle to learn skills outside their comfort zone. When working for a company, we tend to stay in our fields as specialists and many times, we can’t get the big picture. For me, understanding the entire process of creating and launching products is very interesting and so I wanted to go through the process to expand my business skills.
A Brief introduction to Vietnamese coffee
The French brought the coffee to Vietnam
Vietnam never had a serious history in coffee. Actually, before the french colonization in the 19th century, the country had nothing to do with coffee at all. French Colonists brought the fruit (yes, coffee is a fruit) to Vietnam and realized that the soil was great for growing coffee.
The laid back coffee culture.
Today, coffee became an essential part of the Vietnamese laid back culture. People drink coffee all day long and at any time. Especially at 40°C, there is always time for an ice coffee under the shadow of a palm tree.
The traditional Coffee
The most common way to enjoy Vietnamese Coffee is to mix it with sweetened condensed Milk. The milk balances the strong taste of the robusta beans and gives the coffee a creamy flavor. However, there are many (crazy) ways to drink Vietnamese Coffee. In the busy streets of Hanoi, you can find Coffee mixed with yoghurt, eggs and even beer.
Gaining popularity internationally
Vietnam’s History is marked by suppression and war. Yet today, Vietnam is one of the fastest growing countries in Asia with more and more people discovering the beautify of the people, the landscape, the food and the coffee.
I thought it was time for a change…
I realized that with all the changes that the country is going through, one thing hasn’t changed at all: the coffee phin. Vietnamese coffee is still seen as the quick drink in-between but it lacks the sophistication of a third wave coffee. For that reason, I wanted to give the old phin a modern touch to raise awareness for Vietnam’s signature drink.
As with all my projects, I start with pen and paper. I believe that all designers, no matter digital or physical, should start with a blank sheet of paper. Sketching allows us to explore and communicate ideas quickly and reduce of the risk of wasting time building things that don’t work.
Understanding the traditional phin
At first I had to understand how the traditional phin works, what it is good at and things that I could improve. Because coffee was introduced by the french, the phin at its core basically works very much like a good old french press. The coffee ground goes into the Metal Filter and is kept tight by pushing another metal piece on top. Hot water is poured into filter and sinks through the coffee into the cup.
- fast and cheap to produce
- can be used with different cup sizes
- coffee oil remains for rich flavor
- coffee ground can go through the holes into the cup
- coffee ground can get stuck in the holes which leads to slow dripping (coffee gets cold)
- Metal material not ideal for coffee connoisseurs
After exploring various designs and selecting a direction, I started to build a 3D model to craft size and details. I went with 3D printing as the prototyping method which requires 3D data. Prototyping is important and gives a great understanding of size and feel of a product. I also used the 3D Model to create renderings for the initial website to collect feedback.
Finding a Manufacturer
This is one of the areas that designers usually never have to deal with: finding suitable partners. I’ve never done this before and had no clue how to approach this task. Nevertheless, after doing some research I found some manufacturers that I called up and asked if they can help me out. If you talk to over 40 manufacturers, you pretty much get the hang of it after a while and know what they need.
Finding the right partner and ordering multiple samples took me the majority of the time. As you can see in the photos, the first sample will never be perfect. I looked for manufacturers all over the world and ended up collaborating with one from China. The entire process taught me great lessons about good communication and working with the constraints of partners. You can have the best designed product in the world, but it all doesn’t matter if no one can produce it.
The finishing line
After the sample was finally ready, I worked with my manufacturer on the packaging. As you can see, the first try was not quite as expected. Another important lessons here: cultural differences and perception in quality can differ vastly. However, it didn’t need much trial and error, and after seeing the second packaging that they had to offer, I decided to go with this one.
It took me 2 years to release the product and there were many up and downs, that gave me insecurities. Often, I would ask myself if I should keep going or not.
But during the entrepreneurial journey, there will be always these moments where you doubt yourself and everything you do. The most important thing is to keep going.
In The end, the learnings and satisfaction you gain along the way, outweigh by far the many sleepless nights.