Keys to Scale: How Abigail Forsyth Has Sold 10,000,000 Reusable Coffee Cups

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This interview in part of our “Keys To Scale” series, where we sit down with founders of successful 7 and 8 figure businesses and ask them how the did it. Make sure you subscribe so you don’t miss our next interview!

KeepCup’s co-founder and managing director Abigail Forsyth spent 10 years watching hundreds of thousands of disposable cups get thrown in the trash and shipped off to rot in landfills. And that didn’t sit well with her at all.

“We just saw the rise and rise of disposable cups and how people were consuming coffee that way and thought, ‘This is revolting. They’re not recyclable; they’re extremely wasteful,’ and I thought, ‘How do we do it better?’”

Ever since officially hitting the scene 10 years ago in 2009, KeepCup has sold over 10 million units in over 65 countries and have saved literally billions of disposable cups from ending up in a landfill.

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Just like with Google and search engines or Xerox and printers, KeepCup’s name has become synonymous with reusable cups and is, in no uncertain terms, the de facto leader of its industry.

But how did it all start? How did KeepCup achieve such massive global success? How do you even begin to grow a business to such a level?

Sitting down in their new offices in Clifton Hill, a stone’s throw away from their original factory in Melbourne, we spoke with Abigail and found out the answers to all those questions and more.

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Testing With Soup

Before launching KeepCup, Abigail and her brother and co-founder Jamie Forsyth were cafe owners. After opening their first cafe together in 1998, for the next 12 years, the siblings worked together selling coffee in paper cups.

“It was in the late ’90s, when if you wanted to make someone look busy and professional, you put a laptop in one hand and disposable cup in the other — and we just saw, in 10 years, the rise and rise of disposable cups,” says Abigail.

Contrary to popular belief, disposable coffee cups are not recyclable. Despite their paper exterior, most disposable coffee cups are actually lined with plastic polyethylene on the inside, making them difficult to recycle. Multiple reports (such as the one mentioned here and the one mentioned here) say disposable coffee cups can take anywhere from 30 to 50 years to fully break down.

Not wanting to be a part of the problem, Abigail and Jamie began looking for a solution.

With the goal of reducing the amount of paper and plastic that went out their doors, Abigail and Jamie searched for a viable alternative they could present to their customers. The problem was, no such product existed.

“I went to just buy a reusable cup to sell in our stores to try and promote that behavior change, and then I found there wasn’t anything that could do all the things we needed them to do,” says Abigail.

All that was available at the time were big, clunky thermos mugs that couldn’t fit espresso machines, weren’t easy to clean, and were difficult to carry around. In short, it was just too troublesome, for both the customer and the barista, to use a reusable cup.

Seeing a gap in the market, the brother-sister team began working on creating a reusable cup that was convenient for both the customer and barista to use.

But before diving straight into manufacturing, the pair wanted to see if it was even possible to introduce such a drastic behavioral change in their customers in the first place.

“The first thing we did was test the idea with some decor soup mugs in 2007. So we just brought in a soup mug and sold our soups, and we said, ‘If you use this reusable mug, you’ll get 50 cents off,’” says Abigail. “So 15% of our customers reused, so we tested the idea and found that it had merit.”

Seeing that it was possible to convince people to embrace reusability, Abigail and Jamie dove into manufacturing, spending the next two years working with an industrial designer to create the world’s first KeepCup.

Crafting for Convenience

When developing KeepCup, the core principle that drove the design of the product was convenience.

After spending countless hours behind the espresso machine and talking with customers, Abigail found that while most people wanted to do the right thing, it was just simply too inconvenient to do so.

“The biggest impediment we found was people saying, ‘I want to do the right thing, but I don’t want to inconvenience anyone. I don’t want to put the barista out. I don’t want to put the cafe out. I don’t want to put someone in the queue behind me out. So how do I?’”

At a very basic psychological level, people naturally want to reduce as much friction from their lives as possible.

It doesn’t matter if you have the best product in the world — if the experience your product is providing is difficult or inconvenient for the customer, they won’t buy it. One study concluded that a product’s convenience was more important to a customer than its price.

When it came to designing KeepCup, Abigail wanted to create something that could fit seamlessly into her customer’s lives, understanding that if she wanted to affect the change she was aiming for, she needed to create a product that people weren’t just going to purchase but were going to regularly incorporate into their lives.

“It was about designing a product that was going to be subtle and just fit seamlessly into the flow without drawing too much attention to itself.”

That meant first focusing on designing a product with the barista in mind, as well as the end customer. So the KeepCup was designed specifically for use with an espresso machine and wouldn’t require any extra effort on the barista’s part to use.

Next was making sure the KeepCup could easily be integrated into a customer’s day-to-day life without any difficulty. To that end, Abigail made sure the KeepCup was made with materials that would make it easy to clean, dishwasher safe, and microwavable.

This hyper-focus and obsession with designing a product that anyone could immediately use would be one of the key reasons behind KeepCup’s explosive growth.

“It’s about product design, and I guess we’re trying to build a product that you reach for not just because it’s sustainable but because you enjoy drinking out of it — and that’s where I think we’ve stood the test of time, that our products are really good,” says Abigail. “They’re really good quality. They’re really thoughtfully made and considered in how people use the product.”

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Changing Behaviors

A common obstacle many environmentally friendly brands run into is being able to convince the public at large to adopt sustainable habits.

One recent survey by Harvard Business Review found that while 65% of consumers said they want to purchase from value-driven brands that promote sustainability, only 26% actually do so.

For KeepCup, they had the unique challenge of convincing people to change long-held attitudes and habits and to embrace something new. It was an uphill battle, to say the least.

Their first plan of attack was to acquire large corporate clients through pre-sales. Picking up the phone, they began calling and pitching dozens of potential customers, all the while using each pitch as a chance to further refine their messaging.

Image via Pro Bono Australia

“Through Bluebag, we had a lot of corporate catering businesses that we work with, so I called them all,” recalls Abigail. “We called hundreds of businesses and got to their catering manager, then got to their sustainability manager, who had no money, so then we got to the marketing manager — and we pitched the idea. I imagine after a hundred calls, you’re refining your idea, you’re finding out what people’s concerns are, you’re finding out what the triggers are.”

Eventually Abigail found herself bicycling down to her first big meeting with National Australia Bank with a KeepCup prototype stuffed in a shoebox with a rubber band to keep the lid on.

“It was a 3D printed prototype, and it was hand painted. The band was like this skinny band that we eventually changed. You couldn’t take the lid off, or move the plug or anything, so it was just really the form of the cup.”

Nevertheless, Abigail soldiered on and convinced the executives around her by demonstrating that she had put in the time to do the research around her potential client. Knowing the bank had recently undertaken a green initiative, Abigail tailored her pitch around how purchasing and providing KeepCups for their employees was a natural extension of their current initiative.

Impressed, the bank ordered 5,000 cups right then and there as a gift for their employees. Buoyed by this success, Abigail managed to pre-sell another 5,000 to another high-profile corporate client, and all before they had even started properly manufacturing!

Having successfully found the right formula to win over the corporate market, the next challenge was to find a way to convince the average customer to embrace KeepCup’s message of sustainability.

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To do that, Abigail and Jamie went after the biggest influencer when it comes to coffee: the baristas and coffee shops themselves.

People were going to be guided by what their coffee shop did, so we knew we had to target them. If you walk into the cafe and you hand over a reusable, and the barista rolls their eyes, you’re not going to do it again,” says Abigail. “Whereas if the barista says, ‘Oh cool, you’ve got a KeepCup,’ then you feel good and you’ll do it again. Working with that audience was really important to pave that way for permission.”

Abigail reached out to hundreds of independent cafes and coffee shops and offered them a unique deal.

The cafes that sold KeepCups would be able to keep a percentage of each sale, giving them another revenue stream. And in return, KeepCup would have a powerful distribution network that would allow them to directly target their ideal customer.

To further incentivize customers, using the exact same strategy from a couple years earlier, cafes would offer a small discount to anyone that purchased a coffee using a KeepCup.

KeepCup spread like wildfire. As the independent coffee scene in Australia continued to grow, so did KeepCup’s reach.

Project Operation Alarms

For the next several years, KeepCup grew steadily, slowly expanding their operations, entering international markets, and growing their team to 35 people.

With more and more people becoming aware of issues around the environment and sustainability, KeepCup was quickly becoming the go-to choice for anyone looking to purchase a reusable cup.

However, in the middle of 2017, KeepCup experienced such a huge spike in growth that it threatened to capsize the whole company.

On the final episode of an ABC docuseries called War on Waste, the documentary shone a spotlight on the Australian coffee industry and the impact that disposable cups were having on the environment. The show ignited an unprecedented level of public awareness and discussion around single-use plastics and sustainability.

Image via ABC

For KeepCup, it meant a tidal wave of new orders, customers, and headaches.

It nearly broke us; it nearly broke me. It was tough. We knew that was airing, and we thought we would get a spike in our sales on the website; the website crashed,” says Abigail.

Sales inquiries had increased by 690%, sales by over 400%, and web traffic by 205%.

Cafes and corporations everywhere were calling in and demanding to be supplied with KeepCups, and KeepCup was being flooded with so many new orders that Abigail had to hire new staff just to answer the phone.

While achieving explosive business growth might seem like a good thing. In reality, unexpected rapid growth can easily kill a business if it’s not managed properly.

Cash flow becomes a struggle as expenses naturally have to increase in order to handle the increased demand. Operational procedures that you’ve been relying on for the past several years can suddenly break down as they struggle to fulfill every order. That in turn leads to missed orders, negative feedback, and not enough time to properly onboard new systems and procedures.

“We had a system where, because we dealt with a lot of small independent cafes, they would place their order, and then we would wait till they paid to ship their cups out. It worked really well,” says Abigail.

“But because we just couldn’t cope with the volume people were paying, and then they weren’t getting their deliveries, someone called me out and said, ‘I know why you’re called KeepCup, because you keep our money and the cups!’”

It was trial by fire for Abigail, as she found herself stretched to the limit while leading her existing team, training and onboarding new staff, and butting heads with her warehouse team as she changed the overall production process.

We had to transform everything — from the invoicing to the pick and pack, everything had to change,” she says. “We ended up with what we called Project Operation Alarms. We just had to get people in to pack the cups. We ran night shifts; we ran weekend shifts. It was full on.”

This also meant a significant change to the overall structure of the business, as Abigail began hiring experts with deep expertise instead of trying to do everything herself.

“Because stuff starts to fall. You’re dropping things, and you have to look at what you’re holding on to. You have to look at what’s on the floor and go, ‘Well, this thing that’s on the floor that I’ve dropped or isn’t being dealt with — who’s the best person to deal with it? And if I’m going to pick it up, I’m going to have to let something else go.’”

While difficult, Abigail and KeepCup managed to persevere. In the end, KeepCup grew its team of 35 people to 100 globally in just 12 months, including hiring people to take care of culture, a sustainability manager, an operations managers, a finance manager, and even a marketing manager.

“You’re Crazy, This Is Just a Plastic Cup!”

While it might seem obvious in hindsight that KeepCup would be a massive success, being the right product at the right time as people began drinking more coffee and public awareness around sustainability grew definitely helped. But Abigail recalls a moment when they met with a manufacturer who told her she was crazy to pursue her idea.

“He said, ‘You’re crazy; this is just a plastic cup! What are you thinking? There’s so many plastic cups around.’ And he said to me, ‘I’ve got a million dollars’ worth of tools sitting over there on the shelf, with much better products than yours. So if you can’t sell it, forget about it — because lots of people have an idea, but they can’t sell it.’”

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about KeepCup is that it’s managed to continue to grow despite offering only one product and it being “just a plastic cup.”

Typically, fast-growth companies will diversify their product range in order to enter new markets or appeal to different customer segments. For KeepCup though, their main strategy has been to constantly iterate and offer new variations of their single product.

“We had one product. We had five colorways; now we’ve got millions of colorways,” says Abigail.

For Abigail, it’s a matter of doing one thing and one thing well.

She even went so far as to say that jumping on some early opportunities to diversify the brand or product range would have been detrimental to the longevity of the business.

“I think probably saying yes to some opportunities early on would have capsized us, like moving too quickly into new markets, extending the product range too quickly as well,” says Abigail.

As more and more copycats and competitors enter the market looking to get a piece of KeepCup’s pie, Abigail’s core strategy against this is to constantly maintain KeepCup’s values around quality, local-manufacturing, and making it as convenient as possible for anyone to go disposable-free.

“We’re meeting people where they are in their journey for going disposable-free and making sure we have a product that suits every time you might reach for a disposable cup.”

As KeepCup continues to expand its global reach, a large part of the design process is rooted in Abigail keeping her ear to the ground and taking into account the local nuances of each country.

She cited their new double-walled thermal cup as an example of this, as this was only produced after hearing from her Canadian distributor that the original plastic versions couldn’t hold up to the local sub-zero temperatures. They even made it so the same lids could be used on the new thermal versions if you already had a plastic KeepCup.

“It’s challenging because you’re remote, so you’ve got to travel over there all the time to try and drive it — but then you can’t own it. You need local people to drive that local growth and local brand.”

Building a Global Culture of Responsibility

A little while ago, Abigail found an old business plan she had written in the early days of KeepCup. If you were to compare it to any of KeepCup’s business plans today, you’d be surprised at how similar the two are, outside of one glaring difference:

“One of the things that was totally wrong was that I said, ‘It’s not going to change the world; it’s not a huge problem,’” says Abigail. “I didn’t realize the scale of the problem of disposable cups and cutlery and all that. Now the world’s awakened to this single-use plastic issue, and I didn’t realize the scale of it.”

As the global demand for sustainable products continues to rise and KeepCup enters new countries and markets, a key challenge for Abigail has been to maintain the brand’s identity and integrity as it continues to grow.

A recent example of this was the opening of their second factory in the UK in order to maintain their philosophy of supporting local manufacturers. While it would be easier, and cheaper, to move manufacturing to another country such as China or India, Abigail believes it’s their single-minded commitment to their values that makes customers resonate so well with KeepCup.

Be really single minded in your approach, because there’s authenticity in that. If you’re just hammering the same message all the time, you’re consistent, and people respond to that.

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But it hasn’t always been easy, Abigail admits, trying to find the right balance between taking advantage of new opportunities without compromising on KeepCup’s brand.

“We got a lot of feedback early on that a particular market didn’t care about sustainability, and we were like, ‘Well that doesn’t matter. We care about it, and we want you to talk about it whether you think they’re listening or not, because it’s a long-term play.’”

For KeepCup, sustainability isn’t just something that’s nice to talk about, but a baked-in element of the company culture at large. According to Abigail, every decision that’s made is viewed through the lens of sustainability, saying:

“When we think about our packaging, what we’re always thinking about is, how do we reduce it? When we’re thinking about our footprint, it’s always like everything goes through that lens. When we’re making point of sale, we’re like, ‘Is this actually going to be used in reuse? Because if it’s not, we’re not going to make it.’”

Conclusion

In the past ten years, Abigail has grown KeepCup into a truly global brand, all the while demonstrating that you don’t have to sacrifice your values and integrity to do so.

Today, KeepCup stands as a shining testimony to how listening to your customers, being authentic in your approach and messaging, and pursuing purpose over profit can be the keys to achieving explosive and sustainable business growth.

When Abigail first started, she believed that lifting reuse rates to 30% would be an impossible goal, but it’s happening right now — and KeepCup is leading the charge. Abigail’s core purpose still hasn’t changed, as she’s still focused on removing all disposable cups in the world. And she’ll be doing it one KeepCup at a time.

What do you think about Abigail’s story? What were the key lessons that you learned? Let me know in the comments below!

Free Bonus Download: Want Abigal’s four key takeaways on building a successul global brand from Australia? Grab them here.

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