The Lightbulb asks innovators and entrepreneurs how they turned their ideas into reality. This week we talk to Huski co-founder Simon Huesser about developing vacuum insulated ‘coolers’ that keep beer and wine cold for hours on end.
First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Huski.
Huski is all about creating better drinking experiences and a big part of that is keeping cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot. Our most recent innovation is the Huski Wine Cooler which is a world-first, patent-pending product that’s designed to keep wine and champagne chilled for up to six hours without the need for ice or power.
What were you doing prior to this?
My wife (Meika Huesser, Huski co-founder) and I had been in London for 10 years before that. We hadn’t planned to stay that long. It was like an OE that just kept going. But then the call for home was getting stronger, so we decided to take nine months off and travel around for a bit before going back to New Zealand. That was when we thought it would be cool to start something of our own which ended up being Huski.
My background though was primarily in the online space and tech, while Meika worked on the traditional retail side of things. So for me, it was quite a long way away from drinkware and physical products! But I think I just liked the idea of being able to sell something tangible and straightforward. Something that does a great job of what it’s meant to.
So what was it that sparked the idea for Huski? What was your lightbulb moment?
When we were travelling back to New Zealand, we did a road trip through the US, coast-to-coast from Miami to San Francisco. One of the things we came across were products using stainless steel and vacuum insulation to keep drinks really hot or cold. At the time, I really wanted a beer cooler but we wanted to [keep our luggage] light and not buy too much stuff. I decided to get one when I got back to New Zealand, but I couldn’t find one anywhere so I had to import one from the US. But then it didn’t fit New Zealand beer bottles because it turns out we have different size beer bottles from other countries.
That’s kind of where it all started – it came from a personal need of just wanting a beer cooler. And as we were going through the process of developing and validating the product, we realised that Huski could be more than just a beer cooler. We realised there was a wider opportunity here to keep drinks like coffee or tea hot or drinks like water or cocktails cold.
After releasing the beer cooler, we looked at what the next product could be. There were massive opportunities with bottled water and coffee cups because of the environmental aspects of it and people realising that plastic wasn’t a good idea. But then what happened was we started getting customer reviews on the beer cooler and people would say 1) ‘We’re really surprised at how well this product works. We thought it would’ve been a novelty but it’s actually really good’, and 2) ‘What have you got for wine?’
We didn’t have anything for wine and we realised that finding a single one-size-fits-all solution was going to be challenging. So we decided to focus on water bottles and other things, but the question kept coming up. Eventually, we realised our customers weren’t asking us for water bottles or coffee cups – they were asking us for a wine cooler.
Can you explain what it is about your products that keeps cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot?
It’s pretty straightforward. It’s a technology that’s been around for 100+ years and it’s the same principle as how a thermos works. Vacuum insulation is the core driver behind it which means that it reduces the heat transfer between the inside and outside of the vessel. There are two layers of stainless steel, the air gets sucked out from in between, and that means that heat transfer is significantly reduced.
How long does it keep the wine/beer stay cold for?
You can take an hour to drink a beer and it’ll still be cold. [The temperature] will go down about half a degree to a degree an hour. When people talk about a ‘cold refreshing drink’, it’s usually below seven degrees. If it’s above seven degrees you don’t think it’s ‘fridge cold’, and what we noticed was that as soon as you take a beer from the fridge, it’ll go beyond that seven-degree mark within five minutes. On average, people were taking 10-20 minutes to drink a beer and after five minutes it’s already not cold. So the majority of the time you’re drinking a beer that’s suboptimal temperature.
It’s the same thing with the wine cooler. We did a survey and asked people what they were drinking and how they were drinking it. We found that most people were drinking a bottle of wine within three hours. Our goal is always to exceed expectations, so the Wine Cooler we developed will keep the bottle chilled for up to six hours which should be more than enough time if you go to a barbecue or a picnic.
Ultimately, it’s about is giving that first mouthfeel experience. As soon as you take that first sip of beer from the fridge, it’s beautiful, crisp and cold. But your last sip is usually significantly different. It’s warmer if its a beer, or colder if it’s a coffee. [We want to] make sure that last sip is as cold as your first.
These products aren’t cheap ($85 for the Wine Cooler, $35 for the Beer Cooler) and there’s a certain novelty aspect to it, so I’m curious to know what kind of person or what kind of situation Huski is aimed at? Who exactly is the Huski customer?
A massive amount of our business comes from gift buying – people who need to buy a present for their brother, father or son and they’ve already gifted them socks and underwear for however many years. So they give them this beer cooler which they can pull out of the box and use striaght away. Usually, people are pretty sceptical. They think if your beer’s getting warm you’re probably drinking it too slow! That’s the Kiwi mentality, right? But then people try it and an amazing thing happens. The reaction that we usually get is: ‘I never realised I was drinking warm beer’.
What we hear off the back of that is that person then buys it for their friends and family. Because it’s such a social thing (drinking beer/wine) if one person uses it, other people will see it.
Where do Huski’s products get made?
All our design, research and development gets done here in New Zealand [but we] manufacture in China. Because of the processes involved with vacuum insulation and so on, we just don’t have the technology here to manufacture in locally. We tried to look for ways to do it here but we just couldn’t find a partner and it was going to be too expensive to bring in the machinery.
Since launching in 2017, what’s been your biggest challenge?
We knew that the product had to be remarkable, otherwise people wouldn’t use it. It had to [sell itself], so we needed an incredibly high level of quality. We’ve had to move factories a few times now just to make sure we got that standard.
A big design challenge was how to keep everything as simple as possible. The Wine Cooler, for instance, needed to fit all sorts of different bottles [and if there were too many parts] people would think it’s just too much hassle and not use it. That’s why we were initially reluctant to make the Wine Cooler. But the great thing about New Zealand is that you can just talk to people, and when we were designing it, we wanted to understand what size and shape wine bottles were being consumed most in the New Zealand market. So we ended up going to a glass bottle manufacturer and asked them what shape and size bottles were being consumed the most. Sure, we could’ve just gone to a supermarket and look around ourselves, but that doesn’t tell us how many are actually in people’s homes being drunk.
Finally, what plans do you have for the next year?
Last year was all about design and development, creating moulds, and flying to China and back. This year is all about introducing these products to people and getting it out there as much as possible.
In the long term, would you consider looking at making water bottles and coffee cups again?
100%. The idea behind Huski is to offer that full service so that’s definitely on the radar. But if we do it, we want to do it right. There’s a great range of bottles that do a good job of keeping drinks cold at the moment, so we’d want to make them better somehow.