By Claire Harlin
Behind every useful gadget is an idea, and behind every idea is a person — and in the case of the first reusable, portable, decorative, condensation-absorbing drink coaster, that person is longtime Solana Beach resident Vince DiMella.
Called the 3D Beverage Coaster, DiMella’s product looks similar to a drink koozie but serves an entirely different purpose — it flex grips to fit on the bottom-most drinkware to prevent condensation on surfaces and clothing while saving the wasted paper napkins and cardboard coasters that most bars and restaurants use. The invention is steadily reaching a global audience since DiMella was granted his patents in 2005 in the U.S., Australia, Canada, China and the European Union.
The coaster’s inception dates back about a decade ago, when DiMella was having lunch at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.
“We were sitting at a glass table, and we all were drinking out of pint glasses,” said 40-year-old DiMella, a single father who has lived in Solana Beach for 18 years and volunteers each week at Solana Vista Elementary, where his daughter attends school. “There were puddles of water and soggy napkins everywhere and each time I picked up my glass, water dripped on my clothes.”
Being a lifelong surfer, DiMella instantly thought of how his neoprene wetsuits repel and absorb water, so he applied that function to the concept of a portable coaster.
“My friend and I talked about the idea the entire drive back from Vegas, and the moment I got home I began to cut apart old wetsuits and shaped them around the base of a pint glass,” said DiMella, who has worked for more than 20 years in the action sports industry, working his way up to lead sales on a national level for Genetic Shoes, a subdivision of the well-known brand, Airwalk.
He said he used rubber cement to adhere the prototype together, and began testing the gadget around the house, he came to find out that it worked — and it worked well.
“I saw a need and I saw functions and I saw the environmental side of saving napkins,” he said. “It all seemed to make sense when I did market research, and I was getting great feedback, so I pursued it.”
But at that point, the 3D Beverage Coaster was merely a concept and DiMella new he needed overseas manufacturing and wider market research to launch. He managed to find a patent attorney — who, now a partner in the company, has helped establish the product’s global presence, but it took about five years for the government to issue patents. In the meantime, DiMella met his former wife, with whom he had his daughter, Gabrielle. He also worked and lived in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, for the clothing label Diesel.
After a few years, DiMella returned to Solana Beach to give the project his full attention, and with no hesitation, he was taking trips to China to find the proper factory to manufacture the product.
Soon after building a strong relationship with Chinese manufacturers, the 3D Beverage Coaster hit the market though trade show exposure and, subsequently, a partnership with major promotional product distributors. The collaboration and marketing resulted in contracts with big corporations like Coors Light, Dunkin Donuts, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Miller Lite, to name a few — which printed their logos on the exterior, inside and bottom of the coasters. That’s not forgetting about the smaller, local venues, such as Chief’s Burgers & Brew and the Belly Up, that have ordered directly from DiMella and supported the project.
DiMella has found that even making a small, simple gadget, which retails for under $1, brings to the table its own complex challenges — from licensing, to patent protection, to competition, to funding. He said his attorney has also had to defend the 3D Beverage Coaster twice after larger entities —including one well-known Fortune 50 retail store— “emulated” the concept, DiMella said.
Such instances are what inspired DiMella to name his company the Small Axe Corporation, based on the song “Small Axe” by Bob Marley — who sang, “If you are the big tree … we are the small axe, sharp and ready, ready to cut you down.”
The item has been growing consistently through a distribution-and-royalty structure, but DiMella wants raise enough capital to go solo, breaking away from his promo item distributors so he can implement his own marketing strategies.
“I’m a one-man show right now, but I see this concept going global used, like the coffee sleeve is used today,” said DiMella. “I want this to be a Solana Beach-based business, with many creative friends from the beach working together.”
DiMella added that clients have a nearly 100-percent reorder rate.
“I have a sleek business model that doesn’t need a warehouse and large overhead,” he said. “Orders don’t have to be seen and can ship from the factory directly to the client.”
DiMella said he’s “living a dream” in Solana Beach with a lifestyle that’s hard to beat, but starting a business here presents challenges.
“We’re not big New York City money people around here. I don’t know any stock brokers; I don’t know any money people,” he said. “We’re all entrepreneurial and creative artists of life. I am just a surfer and a dad with a great idea.”
DiMella said he has several other inventions with patents pending, but he wants to see the success of the 3D Beverage Coaster — which was voted “best new green product” at several 2011 trade shows for its ability to save napkins — before he focuses his efforts anywhere else. He said he’s confident that this flagship product will propel the popularity of future Small Axe Company inventions.
“Obstacles have been identified, but we just have to continue on our path,” said DiMella. “It’s easier to run from the challenges, to quit and throw in the towel, but I’ve chosen the journey of expanding globally and overcoming the hurdles, even amid these trying economic times.”
For more information, visit www.smallaxecorp.com, or contact DiMella at (619) 871-9283.