Spotify's Amy Vale on defining career success.
Where did the idea for KeepCup begin and how did you develop the business?
I think we had some inclination that it could be quite a big idea. I was running a café business with my sister, with seven cafes called BlueBag in Melbourne. We saw how many disposable coffee cups were walking out the door every day. We looked for an alternative and there wasn’t one. That’s where KeepCup came about.
There are about 500 billion paper cups used every year. In corporate environments, 20% of their waste stream is paper coffee cups. It is a huge problem and the cups can’t be recycled because they are essentially plastic cups, because they’re lined with plastic.
Everything else we found on the market was really, more of a thermos style cup, which didn’t really suit espresso. We knew the idea could work commercially because the coffee industry globally is just huge, and the amount of disposable cups that go into waste is massive, and we felt people were aware of that problem but there wasn’t necessarily a solution.
So the first step was designing the cup. It had to outperform paper, it had to fit under the spout of a coffee machine so baristas could work with it. We tried a few designs ourselves before we realised we needed external help.
How did you fund the initial design?
We applied for and won a couple of design grants – one from the City of Melbourne and another from Design Victoria. So that injected a bit of capital, and we also had capital from BlueBag and that allowed us to bring in a professional design firm.
In the early stages there were times we questioned if whether we should continue. The big thing about KeepCup was behavior change - you’re asking people to wash a cup and bring it back, and that’s a really hard thing to do. We took the chance that people would be willing to do that.
The next stage was finding a manufacturer, then engaging them with the designers and the engineers to get a product. It was much longer and more complicated than we expected!
You start off with a beautiful rendered drawing, and then the difficult reality of actually manufacturing that product comes in. But we pushed through all that. We’re happy we chose a manufacturer locally because there’s a lot of back and forth between them and the designers. And then from that point you go through small iterations, some that are not obviously to the end consumer but there’s a lot in there.
How did you market KeepCup?
We did a design stall at Fed Square (in Melbourne). We sold more than 1000 KeepCups in about six hours. At that point we knew we were on to something.
Origin Energy placed our first big order. That order certainly didn’t cover the startup cost, but it certainly did give us confidence that we could sell into the market.
A KeepCup is the equivalent material of 20 disposable plastic lids. Our business mission is all about reducing the impact of the coffee industry, and essentially reducing disposable cups. The other secondary benefit of it is that we do highlight to people the value of reusing and recycling more broadly.
How did you expand internationally and what was that like?
Because the coffee industry is international, and is fairly heavily networked, it wasn’t long before we were getting demand from different places.
Our first step was to open the office in the UK, because it’s a similar market, English speaking, similar laws, it feels familiar.
Where KeepCup does well are countries where design, sustainability and coffee are important culturally. When those three things come together we have a really viable market.
The third wave coffee movement is also important to the product. The first wave was instant coffee, the second wave was the Italian immigrants bringing espresso machines. The third wave is the start of café culture – specialty roasters, single origin – people who care about coffee. KeepCup does best in those third wave markets.
What have you learned about different global markets?
Despite coffee being a global phenomenon with some universal macro trends you certainly can’t have the same playbook for all markets. Cultural differences have meant we have had to consider differences in marketing, pricing, materials and colours. As an example, we have seen great uptake of ‘Brew’ our new tempered glass KeepCup in the US as they see the value in making the takeaway experience superior by drinking from glass.
The overseas expansion has been the most challenging thing for a small business.
When you go into overseas markets you’re not as keyed into the culture, you don’t know the laws, the taxation, there is so much complexity and there’s not a lot of people you can turn to for expert advice.
You run KeepCup with your sister, who is CEO. How do you manage working so closely with a family member?
We’re a bit like Spock and Kirk. It can be pretty challenging, there’s a lot of blood and tears all over our boardroom walls! But I personally don’t know how different it is working with other partners - I suspect all partnerships are hard in their own way.
I think being siblings, there are benefits in that we can say things that you probably wouldn’t if we were in a normal partnership. It’s easier to bounce back from challenges as well, because you have such a long relationship.
What’s the hardest part of being your own boss?
I think handing over stuff is often quite challenging, and stepping back from certain things. I think that sometimes you can stagnate when you’re in charge. You need to remember that you don’t know everything, you’ve just got to keep on educating yourself and keep on improving.
I never considered myself working in a corporate environment. I come from a family where my father owned his own successful business, and was quite successful at it, so I think inherently in our family we always thought we might go off and be entrepreneurs.
How do you define success?
Having your own business and choosing your path is motivating in itself and exciting. The variety of the work is stimulating. People come to me all the time for advice. In truth I’m not an expert, I’m just average Joe who had to work through a problem and as a result I know a bit about it. It is constant learning and then just keep on building on that.
For KeepCup, being successful is really about achieving our mission, which is getting people to reduce the amount of disposable cups that they use. The business also has to be commercial and it has to make money, and that has to meet the needs of what’s required in the rest of our lives, and I think to be successful you need to know what that balance is from a high level.
I’m pretty proud of KeepCup, I do feel very good when I see people walking around and using a Keep Cup. In Fitzroy [where the company is based] we see it quite a lot, so that feels good.
What was your time at RMIT like studying Business Marketing?
I wish I had paid more attention! Absolutely everything I did in that course, I had to revisit later in business, and maybe the positive thing was I didn’t feel completely out of water. Wish I’d paid more attention in statistical analysis, because I’ve gone back to it so many times. Actually, I might not have been able to recall all of the exact detail from the course, but the foundation was there, and I probably think that ultimately gave me the confidence to go forward.
What advice would you give to someone who’s got a great idea and wants to start a business?
If you really believe in it, you should be encouraged to pursue that ambition and idea. To protect yourself from the risks of an idea, you need to talk to a lot of people and ask for advice. Ask anyone who will listen! Then have a staged plan about how you would go about launching that business where at certain points you’ve got green and red lights to evaluate and know if you should keep on going.
Jamie Forsyth graduated from a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) in 1995.
Top and inset images: Jamie Forsyth pictured at KeepCup head offices in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Photos by Emma Phillips.