Wondermugs: A Changing Scene

Wondermugs: A Changing Scene

Alexandria man markets color-changing mugs

When it's hot it's not what it is when it's cold. And, when it's cold it's only a hint of what it is when it's hot.

Their true colors only appear when filled with hot liquid. "They" are "Wondermugs." Inspired by the entrepreneurial creativity of Jim Simpson, the colorful "thermochromatic" mugs bring new meaning to a "jolt of java" anytime of day or night.

As a former analyst for the Office of Management and Budget, Simpson quit the government in 1993 to begin a business developing and selling color-changing beverage mugs to the retail gift industry. This past August he opened his first full-time store at 1022 King St.

"When I was at OMB I started making T-shirts with the slogan "Politically Incorrect" on them. They were just blue T-shirt with white lettering but everywhere I went people wanted to know how they could get one," Simpson said.

"That's when I also started making mugs and hats with the same slogan. Then I stumbled across a company that made this disappearing ink. But, they were only doing promotional cups for companies and associations to be given to customers and members," he said.

"I started developing other designs in 1993 and applied for a business license in 1994. I talked my sister into doing some of the designs. She's a very good artist. I also made contact with other artists who now do a lot of work for us," Simpson said.

They include Eric Mohn of Gaithersburg, Md., noted paraplegic mouth artist, known for his nature scenes and birds; Art Wolfe, a nature photographer; Ted Sanderson, formerly of Alexandria, now living in Frederick, Md.; and Scott Tubby, designer of the Undersea Wonders collection, whose work has appeared in Washington, D.C.'s Renwick Gallery.

THE FIRST TWO Wondermugs' designs, "Magic Christmas," were created by his sister Lucretia at her kitchen table. It took six months to get them from concept to production. They were first introduced publicly in May 1994, at the New York Stationary Show. By that holiday season they were on display in more than 500 stores nationwide.

"That was great, but they just didn't sell. We figured out that the design, before the hot liquid was added, was just too blah. It was a great Christmas Tree but it was just a big green blob on the cup before transformation. The second try we added pine cones on the tree that changed to colored ornaments and lights when the mug was heated. It sold," he said.

Each design is first sketched out, either by Simpson or one of his artists. When the concept is fully developed a finished piece of artwork is prepared, according to Simpson.

The next step is to incorporate changes in the artwork that will make it a "changing" design. A "before" and "after" version is created. The art work is then color-separated and applied to the mugs by silkscreen. Because of the creation demands, each design takes from two to 12 months, before a mug is put into production.

Designs currently available have taken more than a decade to stockpile. New creations are always in development. Designs cost between $3,000 and $4,000 each, before production, marketing and distribution.

Each mug contains a top layer image, logo, or scene that covers other images which emerge when the mug is filled with a hot liquid. Both disappearing and color changing inks are used in the process, according to Simpson.

At the present time there are 80-plus mug designs offered through a nationwide chain of distributors. "We do shows all over the country. I've created a dealer program/network and have more than 100 dealers nationwide," Simpson said.

On that list is Ella Voise, Roundup, Mont. Following a 2003 holiday season show she wrote to Simpson saying, "I can't remember having a product that is so easy to sell. Wondermugs are practical and enjoyable and affordable. They catch the eye of children as well adults."

IN 2000, SIMPSON merged with Houze Glass, Inc., in Point Marion, Pa. He now serves as the vice president of the Wondermugs Division. "It is the biggest money maker in the company," Simpson said.

"But, the very thing that makes the mugs the success they are is also the very same thing that has made it a hard sell at the local retail level — doing the demonstrations," he said. "Most retail stores are not equipped or don't take the time to demonstrate them properly and people just pass them by."

That led Simpson to set up a series of kiosks in various area malls where they could be constantly demonstrated. He combined this with selling dealerships all over the country. This increased the mall kiosks nationwide.

He also expanded into various arts and craft show and event venues throughout the nation. This past weekend they were part of the Fall Occoquan Arts and Crafts show.

Proper demonstration is a mainstay of Simpson’s new store on King Street. There, on the counter is a variety of mugs. Right next to them is a hot water maker bubbling away. When a customer asks for a demonstration, Simpson pours the hot water into a selected mug and the reaction is instantaneous: "Wow!"

That reaction was exactly what Toby Marqez felt several years ago when he first encountered Simpson's mugs. After losing contact with one another, Simpson and Marquez ended up neighbors with businesses next to each other on King Street.

"When I found out he had moved in next store I was very excited," said Marqez, co-owner of 21st. Century Vision, 1024 King St., a film and video production company. "I have bought a lot of mugs for my clients. It's a fantastic marketing tool and also makes a wonderful gift."

UNTIL AUGUST SIMPSON was working out of his home at Queen and Royal streets. "But, the house was too small, particularly with two children, age three and six. Plus, my wife Elizabeth had an hour and half commute to work in Columbia where she is lawyer with MedStar Health," Simpson said.

They have recently purchased a new home in Baltimore, Md., that "is twice as big as what we could have afforded here. Now, I'll have the compute. But, I don't mind," he said.

A native of Connecticut, Simpson received his master degree in economics from the University of Delaware. He then taught there for a year before joining OMB where he spent six years from 1987 to 1993 before branching out into his own business.

"I didn't make a cent for the first five years. But, I didn't know enough to quit," he said. They have now passed the one million mark in sales.

"Last year alone we sold over 200,000 plus. We have now come up with our own Wondermugs Fresh Roasted Coffee Beans," Simpson said. They also market some additional products such as a microwavable instant fudge. For additional information log onto www.wondermugs.com or jim@wondermugs.com.

In recognition of the times, Simpson has just come out with Wondermugs for each of the military services including the Coast Guard. "For nature lovers we have created the new 'Birds of North America,' a beautiful 'Frogs' mug and a stunning 'Eagles' design. And, responding to all our horse loving customers we now have a 'Horses' Wondermug," he said. Individual mugs sell for $11.95.

The concept has been expanded to include four cold drink color changing glasses. They depict the changing seasons. "We are always working on new ideas," he said.