Keurig Dumps Inventor, Builds Millions of Junk Coffee Makers

Keurig single-cup coffee makers are the most unreliable appliances I’ve ever owned.  My most recent machine failed after only three weeks, and thus this rant.  I’ve owned several of them, and used many more at work, but they never seem to last more than a year.  There’s actually a class-action lawsuit proceeding against them, claiming: (a) false advertising in their performance and durability, (b) that they brew less than the advertised amount, and (c) that these bugs force the use of more K-Cups.

There appear to be several problems:

  • The needle that punches up into the cup gets clogged.  It can be cleaned out with a paper clip if you have a good eye.
  • A vapor lock occurs in the water feed line from the reservoir to the pump.  If you close off the little white overflow pipe at the top of the reservoir and brew another cup, that sometimes clears it.
  • The internal micro-controller gets hung.  It can be rebooted by unplugging the brewer and plugging it in again

I’ve clearly fiddled with these way too much.  These problems seem fairly easy to fix, so something appears to be wrong at Keurig Central Engineering.  These also aren’t the only issues that they’ve been slow to fix.  In the late 2000s the machines routinely made a loud clattering noise as the internal reservoir was filled, and that turned out to simply be defective pumps.

John Sylvan, from his user page on Quirky.com

So maybe their problem is that they kicked out the actual inventor of the machines, John Sylvan.  The Boston Globe had an article about him and Keurig  last fall  – The Buzz Machine.   He founded Keurig (excellence in Danish) with a partner, Peter Dragone, in 1992.  They tried a lot of different ideas in their apartments, and did their own taste testing. Sylvan actually found himself in the ER with caffeine poisoning after drinking 30 cups a day.  By 1997 they had a working machine, and had raised $1M from venture capitalists.  Sylvan didn’t like being told what to do, though, and was shoved out of the company for a relatively small amount, $50,000.   Dragone was kicked out too, but kept stock.   By the mid 2000s Keurig was starting to take off, and one of their investors, Green Mountain Coffee of Vermont, bought out the 65% of the company that they didn’t own for about $100M.   In fiscal 2011 (ending Sep 24, 2011), total sales at Keurig were $2.6 billion, of which brewers were $520 million.  The brewers are actually sold at a loss to encourage K-Cup sales, which might be why they’re so crummy – they’ve cut every corner on manufacturing them.

Sylvan and Dragone’s original patent (# 5,325,765, Beverage Filter Cartridge) was granted in 1994, and expires this year.  Sylvan hasn’t patented anything since his Keurig days, but the Globe article says he’s working on a solar heating and cooling unit.  He also appears to have designed a nice interlocking trivet scheme at Quirky.

He seems more amused than bitter about his experience, which is the right attitude.   He could have been like Robert Kearns, the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers and the protagonist of the movie “Flash of Genius”.  He came up with a quite minor idea – using a transistor RC oscillator to drive a wiper – and then wasted the rest of his life suing people he thought had stolen it.    You just have to let that stuff go.

I can speak about this with some experience.  After I left one company, my work was adopted by another and they sold about 20 million chips using it.  I didn’t get anything out of that, but I was still pleased.  It’s so rare that something actually takes off that it’s a thrill when it happens.   Although it pains your ego to say it, the success of something is due to a lot of people’s work, and not just your brilliant idea.

Anyway, I’ve kept using these Keurig K-Cups because they really do brew good coffee, and really are a convenience.  Maybe when the patents are gone someone else will find a way to build a decent brewer.

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30 Comments on “Keurig Dumps Inventor, Builds Millions of Junk Coffee Makers”

  1. mtraven Says:

    We’ve got a Nespresso at work, that seems to use the same principle. Hope the patent police don’t come and take it away…

  2. John Sylvan Says:

    Its interesting to see all the articles about how bad this product is, but if so why have they sold millions. I have a 10 year old brewer that still works.

    Kind of frustrating to see that Ben Stiller is a billionaire and all I got was $50,000 (actually is was more). The VC investors were on an active program to get us out the second we took money. 8 Weeks after we closed on the first round they demoted me from president and hired a firm to come in and copy all my computer files in the middle of the night. (would not have know but i found the receipt for work in files). Then they had a secret meeting with Green Mountain without our approval (even though the founders still had 66% of shares) to divide the spoils. It was quite obvious they were going to keep raising money by issuing unnecessary rounds of financing diluting the heck out of our shares. I got into trouble by asking questions like ” why do we need 5,000 square feet of office space for 6 employees?)

    My original holdings would have only been worth $500,000 when they sold the company because of the dilution. Instead I took the money (I actually had to get a lawyer and sue them. They refused until they discovered I owned 33.8% of Class A shares and they could not do any more financing without my okay since you need 2/3 approval of each class).

    I used the money invest it high tech stocks that went wild for a few years. In the end i did better by selling. Not a billionaire but doing okay.

    • jlredford Says:

      Glad to hear you got something out of it all! I’ve heard lots of stories similar to yours, although my own experience with them was pretty good. Still, they know they’re an unloved group! I was at a seminar when one of them told the following joke:

      A VC is walking down the street when he meets an extremely handsome, well-dressed individual, who is of course the Devil. The Devil says to him “As you know I have the power to cloud men’s minds, and so I can triple your rate of return.”

      “Really!” says the VC, “Tell me more!”

      “Oh, it’s easy for me, but I’ll need something from you too. I’ll need your soul, of course, but I’ll also need your wife’s, those of your children, your parents and your best friend.”

      “Uh huh,” says the VC. “So what’s the catch?”


    • ”Its interesting to see all the articles about how bad this product is, but if so why have they sold millions” – well, if you had access to billions in dollars in cheap capital, via an expensive stock propped up by fudging your numbers, and sharing inside information with hot money hedge funds with ‘market moving’ power…

      oh, and the most generous return/replacement policies out there…

      • GW Says:

        The Keurig concept is great, and not overly complex! It’s just sad that they have used substandard components in the build. I have one, and I love it and hate it. At some point, I will take the time to find quality parts to put back into to get it to work the way it should, or wait till someone builds a quality machine.
        The reason so many have sold is because of the concept. I ran into another person that just got one. They loved it, showed me, and so did I. So I went out and bought one, thinking Keurig is a quality company. Problem was, I found out after the fact, what I really bought was junk. It’s sad to see such a great idea so poorly implemented.

      • john sylvan Says:

        It’s like HP printers. They sell brewers at loss and make it up on disposables. If you call them, they usually send a new one yo replace broken one.

      • GW Says:

        Your right on HP. They used to make rock solid printers. I still use my 15+ year old Laserjet 4si to this day. Now though, there all plastic, and don’t last all that long anymore. My B77 failed about two before the warranty expired, had me do a few things and wait and see it was fixed. When I called back, it was now out of warranty and were of no help. Sad to say, it’s not only Keurig that is like this anymore. It seems to be standard operating procedures with a lot of companies. In the beginning, it was mostly just the software companies. If it has a bug, we may fix it, but probably will fix it in the next revision, which you will have to buy. That attitude has now filtered into just about every product.

      • john sylvan Says:

        Actually I find tools to be the worst. I have garden tools that I inherited from my grandfather that still work. I buy tools from Home Depot that last only 12 months on average. It’s because people only look at the price, so there is no one to blame but ourselves. I bought a $99 saw at HD and after a few weeks realized it was crap. I bought a replacement for $299 (online and not from HD) that is excellent quality and still works. I was the fool for buying the $99 piece of crap.


  3. Question for you gentlemen (highly appreciate the responses),

    If the Green Mountain Coffee Jokers are truly a razor/razor blade business, how the heck does Mr. Coffee sell their models for materially lower? Also, having studied their financials for quite some time, the numbers don’t quite jive with their claims.that they sell their brewers “at cost” …

    • john sylvan Says:

      The typical drip brewer is a quite simple device. It is a heater, one way valve, and silicone tube. The water flows from reservoir to heater, where it expands forcing it through valve. This creates a pumping action. Quite simple and quite cheap. A keurig coffee maker is more complex since you have to heat the water under pressure and then pump it with an air pump.

      Actually there is a better solution to the problem which has to do with the nature of coffee. Once you brew a cup of coffee its sets up a chemical reaction ( Part A reacts with Part B). If you can separate A & B, you need only combine them again (weeks later if you want) and add hot water, which is really simple operation. I accomplished this years ago and it works quite nicely (you need to add a buffer solution to part A though which you can’t taste. ) When I was kicked out of Keurig I bought GMCR stock (at $4/share). Since I sold it last year now maybe I will resurrect this design and kick then in the nuts. Hah Hah

      • jlredford Says:

        Inventing well is the best revenge! Hope your new scheme works!

      • GW Says:

        More power to you! If this idea is as convenient as these Keurig & Tassamo’s are, and it’s better equipment, I think you have a winner.

      • Grace Cohen Says:

        Can’t wait, John – I’d love to buy your new brewer and I know a ton of other people who would stand in line with me. There’s nothing like a clever, quality-focused engineer who can build a better mouse-trap – especially when he’s already learned why they really call venture capitalists “VC” … Find the best & brightest minds for your company who’ve already been around the block too – and give them a chance to work for stock to keep your startup costs low. Be sure to get the best marketer & PR person you can find – one with a PROVEN TRACK RECORD for sales, not just making cool, cute, or pretty Facebook pages.

        Good luck – and keep your project visible, John. Your customers are already lining up!

        PS – consider making a more functional and less ‘trendy’ design so it fits more efficiently on the counter and is easier to remove fill and clean the reservoir. But I’m sure you’re already on top of that!

  4. Tom Says:

    I agree they are basically junk.

  5. Glen Says:

    These machines are junk, we are on our 3rd and final machine.

  6. Mike Kaminsky Says:

    I have the origial B100. Only ever had two issues, the first was hard water deposits which I cleared with vinegar. And the second was the right-side pump motor failed. Looking for a replacement now, but other than that, i still think this older model was built more solid than the newer ones I’ve seen. After reading through this discussion thread, I see why that is. But thanks John .. For providing me with years of coffee enjoyment. Great idea. Mankind owes you one.

  7. Jim Says:

    I was a long time user of the Keurig but have now switched to a new machine called the ESIO. It can make both hot and cold drinks at the touch of a button. They also have about 25 different beverages to choose from including coffee, teas, lemonade, energy drinks, etc etc etc. All name brand products. And the best part is that just one of the EPaks (as they call them) makes up to 14 8 oz servings vs the singel serving that Kcups provide. My wife and kids like it so much that I decided to get one for the office as well. All the people there are getting use to it. Takes awhile sometimes to break old habits. Another cool thing is that the ePaks are interchangable. No after taste from the previous ePak.

    I found it at WalMart for $199. Slick machine. Blows Keurig to pieces imho. You can reorder the ePaks on line at http://www.esiobev.com.

    • John Sylvan Says:

      What does this have to do with coffee. What you talk about is instant in the form of a solid or liquid, but still instant coffee. American’s now hate instant coffee. Starbucks tried with their instant coffee brand (was it via, or something like that). It was a total flop.

  8. Dave L Says:

    I am presently trying to find a water valve for my Keurig B2000 model (I believe it is) and was told that Keurig did away with these older models and want everyone to upgrade to the newer models. I was also told that the original Parker water valves Keurig used to use are now being made over in china for less $$……big surprise huh. Parker made their last shipment to Keurig about 9 months ago and I can’t find parts anywhere so far.

    Good Luck to you John! Hope you come up with something good!

  9. Elsje Sweeney Says:

    But I’m sure all you gentleman are aware of the constant 10 years of work, and tireless commitment that made Keurig into a household name. We certainly are. btw Keurig is Dutch for excellence, not Danish ;)

  10. John Sylvan Says:

    Elsje, of course you are, Your husband, Dick Sweeney still walks around claiming he was a cofounder. We had been at it 2 years and sunk $100K into it before he even showed up. He did not fork up a penny in risk capital, and pretty much walked into a fulltime high-paying job . He contributed nothing to the original idea nor took the hugh gamble Peter and I took when we quit high paying jobs.

  11. Elsje Sweeney Says:

    Father. Not husband. And for not being bitter you sure sound it. Have a good one!

  12. John Sylvan Says:

    Kind of dishonest to comment here when you don’t disclose your involvement. My picture is here so people know where I stand and my role. If any of my 4 children posted something here without a disclosure i would think less of them. Actually not bitter at all, I bought GMCR stock and made a fortune doing nothing at all,

    • Brandon Heller Says:

      John,

      How can I get in touch with you ? I’m a young entrepreneur in need of some guidance. I’m working on developing a product that pertains to the coffee industry and have received interest from one of the largest office coffee service providers. Stuck at a crossroad and could greatly benefit from some expert guidance. I’m starting to put together a board of advisors, one of which being the founder of Coffee Joulies (seen on KickStarter and Shark Tank) only saying this to give some preliminary validation. I’m on LinkedIn & live in Nashville, TN.

  13. Elsje Sweeney Says:

    I guess we’ll never actually know will we? But good for you! I’m happy for you.

  14. Chris Chastain Says:

    I just want to say that the clogged needle and so-called vapor lock are not generally a problem at all.
    What IS a serious problem, that makes these machines go out after about 1 year:
    A water valve solenoid is positioned directly above the air pump. This solenoid will occasionally drip a little water (not enough to make it to the counter top) which ends up in the air pump motor. This causes corrosion on the motor shaft and will eventually seize the motor.
    This is what causes the Keurig machine to start making only partial cups and eventually stop working entirely.
    I have repaired several and this is always the problem and Keurig is apparently aware of it.
    The repair is simple but the machine is exceedingly difficult to get apart without damage.
    A simple manufacturing fix would be a small shield under the valve or over the pump to redirect the occasional drip to the bottom plate of the machine, where it will never be an issue. In fact, I have done just that on machines that still have a working pump, as preventive maintenance.
    Other than that, these machines are exceedingly well built and designed, and use good quality components.

    • jlredford Says:

      I’ve seen it fail in just this way. Thanks for the explanation! If you’re the Chris Chastain on YouTube, could you add a video showing how to do this? If anyone from Keurig Engineering is reading this – here’s the best kind of customer feedback!

  15. shelley pothier Says:

    I owned a large Keurig and loved it and loved the coffee more. The problem is that the machine only lasted 14 months. I paid $129.95 plus taxes. I called the 800# posted for Keurig. They offered me another for $85.00 but I needed a credit card # to give them which I don’t have. That was the end of it. No offer to send a coupon to buy another or any other alternative. That was the end, too bad too sad. I will not buy another. Too expensive for 14 months. Reluctantly, I’m back to an old brewer. Not enjoying my coffee as much.

  16. jeff Says:

    Is there a way to adjust pump to add more water to the machine, to brew a larger cup?

    • jlredford Says:

      Most machines already have settings for larger or smaller cups. It’s entirely a matter of how long the pump is driven, so I think you’d have to modify the micro-controller firmware. That’s not for the faint of heart!


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