Feature

A quick cuppa with KeepCup

G-Online

Releasing the first barista-standard reusable cup, KeepCup, in 2009, Abigail Forsyth used her practical knowledge from working in hospitality to complement her natural business savvy.

KeepCup-interview

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G caught up with this inspirational woman who has not only been endowed with business know-how, but also insight. Here's our interview with one very driven and passionate woman.

Tell us about your business and the inspiration behind it?
“KeepCup is what we’re calling the first barista-standard reusable cup, because it’s been designed specifically for expresso coffee machine. Unlike other reusables – like ceramic mugs or a thermos’ – it’s purpose-built for expresso, and it’s sort of taken Australia by storm.”

Why did you see the need for a product like the KeepCup?
“My brother and I worked in the café industry – we owned and operated a businesses called Blue Bag. We saw the amount of disposable packing we were going through and when we first started there were very few disposable cups around. Twelve years later it’s almost the preferred way to drink a coffee. We were concerned about being complicit in the amount of packaging that was being gone through. I think international paper in the United States say that in America alone they go through 56 billion disposable cups a year, or in a day...”

So what’s your interest in environmental issues?
“It’s the interest of being another person on the planet and a mother. I saw people going into cafés with their own cups and getting a bad reception even though they were trying to do the right thing, and I just wondered whether aesthetics and bad design were the reasons for such poor take-up of reusables in the market. I’m interested in solutions that people can have to make the world a better place without having to necessarily do too much compromise for their lifestyle. There’s a lot of easy wins out there.”

So what other aspects of ethical management are involved in your business?
“We considered sustainability from the very outset because we knew that to be successful the product would have to be sustainable front and back. The cups are made in Lilydale and only the silicon disks are made in China because we couldn’t find any silicon manufacturers locally. They’re made of plastic – and that was a design choice from a sustainability point of view as it makes them easier to ship, it gives them a longer life, it makes them unbreakable. And then internally, we’ve got a mandate within the organisation itself that we are sustainable. Amnesty International and a lot of big companies have come by our office and they’ve checked out the Occupational Health and Safety all over. So we’re into sustainability from a humanitaraian point of view too."

Why is the design of this product so good?
“The reason disposables have risen and have become so ubiquitous as well is because it speeds up the coffee making process and café owners can go through such high volumes of coffee which is obviously good from a financial point of view. Bringing in a reusable often slows that down – but the KeepCup has been designed from the point of view of the person making it on the machine. For one, the internal volume is the same, two it fits under the group heads of the coffee machine, three it doesn’t need to be heated (which you do with ceramic and metal, so it doesn’t slow the process down), four it’s got a lid so it meets the occupational health and safety standards, and then five it comes in about 14 different colour combinations so you can individualise it and make it your own!”

You said you had business experience in the catering field. Did you have business experience in terms of product manufacturing and sales?

“No, none. None at all – so that was a hair-raising ride manufacturing our own product! But we engaged some great industrial designers and in fact, the manufacturing engineer down in Lilydale has been fantastic as well. I guess the main thing is that it was a much longer process than we thought it was going to be. And there’s tiny incremental changes that go along the way to make a product well designed.”

Would you have any tips to any beginners who are thinking of starting out as eco-innovators?
“I would say engage professionals straight away who can help you really back up your sustainability claims. I’ve heard in a talk somewhere that 80 per cent of the environmental impact of products is in the design phase, so once you’ve committed money or you’ve committed to a material or a process the time has passed to get that right. So, at the very beginning, consider all the things – how you’re going to ship it, how it’s going to look, how long it’s going to last.”

Was there any particular hurdle along the way that you weren’t expecting? Or something that you’d say to someone else ‘try to think about this next time’?
“Probably it’s the length of time it takes. When we went to see one of the manufacturers he said ‘if you can’t sell this off the prototype don’t bother, I don’t think there’s a market for it’. And I was sort of a bit miffed at the time, thinking, ‘how can this man not see the genius of the product?!’. But then I thought about it and realised he was right so we went out and we sold 5,500 to Energy Australia in Sydney, 5,500 to NAB just off the prototype and then we committed to a date, when really we should have left that open, so we put ourselves under incredible pressure to deliver and really, if we had of understood the manufacturing process and how long it takes between getting your first product off the machine and getting it right. That put us under pressure, and it probably took a few years off our life!"

What did you do for financial support?
“We got two grants, one from the City of Melbourne, and one from Design Victoria. And then because we had Blue Bag, which is a high cash flow business, we used a lot of the cash flow from there to finance KeepCup. And we also got a loan.”

And it was all worth it?
“Absolutely! It was just so exciting to watch how it’s just changed the way people consume their coffee. I see someone walking down the street and I get butterflies in my tummy when I see someone walking along with one.”

So, what’s next on the horizon?
“We’ve just launched the extra small, four ounce version of the KeepCup. And then I guess we’re going to focus on building a global brand. It grew so fast so quickly that we’re sort of now really retracing our steps to get a sales – remember we’ve sold to anyone who wants one and now we’re trying to build a bit of a strategy to see how we can move forward and can push into new markets.”

Anything inspiring that you’d want to say to other people who are thinking of doing something similar but aren’t really being proactive about it?
“I’d say I think one of the main things is people are often very afraid to share what they think is a good idea because they think everyone is going to go out and do it. And I think you should share and talk about it to people because often you’ll get some fantastic feedback – like that manufacturer telling me to go off and sell off the prototype – you do get good feedback that can help spur you on and improve your idea and make it more marketable. Because a lot of people talk about stuff, but not many people actually do it.”

“Having worked so hard at Blue Bag and then worked so hard at this, I think the other hint is that you need to commit as much time and as much energy to a business that is un-viable as one that’s viable, so often people refuse to make some difficult decisions. You have to work as hard irrespective of those rewards, so if the signs are that it’s not working then get out. There’s better ways to spend your energy. You’re going to use as much energy on something good as you would on something that’s not working so well.”

Have you had to do that?
“We look back now, and Blue Bag was the food industry, and people work so hard, like physically, we worked so hard in that business and it was difficult to turn a profit. And then we see this business where it’s a lot easier basically. Less physically taxing and it’s exciting as well.

Do you have any recommendations for what people should put in their KeepCup?
“ A lovely coffee! I do a latte. And the signal of an awesome latte is when I don’t need to out sugar in it because they’ve brewed it so beautifully.