Four lessons in building a sell-out product from KeepCup co-founder Abigail Forsyth


KeepCup co-founder Abigail Forsyth. Source:Supplied.

Melbourne-based reusable coffee cup company KeepCup has been enjoying a healthy sales boost of late thanks to ABC’s War on Waste program, but co-founder and managing director Abigail Forsyth says the company’s ongoing success comes down to more than just good timing.

Speaking to audiences last month at LaunchVic’s Yeah Nah summit in Melbourne, Forsyth reflected on her journey from founding cafe chain Bluebag to establishing KeepCup with her brother Jamie Forsyth, and shared her learnings from years of building a resuable coffee-cup empire.

After running Bluebag for 10 years, Forsyth saw first hand the rise of the disposable coffee cup, and realised creating a sustainable alternative was not only environmentally important, it was also globally scaleable.

Since launching in 2009, KeepCup has grown to a company that now turns over more than $6 million in annual revenue, and while the business is still headquartered in Fitzroy, it has warehouses in the UK and US, selling its reusable products in more than 32 countries around the world.

Here are four ways Forsyth grew her business into the successful multinational operation it is today.

1. Stick to your values 

Forsyth admitted to the audience at Yeah Nah that while the concept of reusable coffee cups may not be a novel one, she says “originality is not about novelty, it’s about sincerity”.

She says that maintaining that sincerity with consumers comes down to maintaining her core value: sustainability.

“It seemed like such an easy and simple idea, but sustainability was key to the product,” she said.

“The sincerity of it [KeepCup] and its belief in sustainability is reflected through the entire business.”

While growing demand, international expansion and increasing revenue may lead some businesses to cut corners to increase profit margins, Forsyth was steadfast in maintaining sustainability as a core aspect of the business.

“If you scratch the surface you see every decision we make about the product, about the materials we use, the way we ship it, the way our staff behave, it [sustainability] runs right through,” she said.

2. Perfect your pitch and product offering

Forsyth said for the KeepCup team, “the best advice we ever got” was investing money and time in to developing the brand’s protoype product and pitch.

“I was told, ‘If you can’t sell this off the prototype then forget it’,” she said.

“I learnt that if you can’t sell the solution to other people, then you won’t get a product off the ground.”

To help her hone her value-offering, Forsyth hit the phonebook and found out what potential partners and customers were looking for in a pitch.

“I called over 100 companies and in that time you get to hone your idea, pitch it, understand what works and what doesn’t,” she said. 

While Forsyth’s pitch wasn’t exactly polished, the passion of her pitch shown through; she recalled a meeting with NAB where she had her reusable cup in a shoebox with an elastic band holding the lid in place, but still managed to secure an order for 5500 cups from the bank.

“Looking back they were buying the product, but they were also buying their faith in me; that I was going to be able to deliver the product, my passion and my belief in what I was doing,” she said. 

“That’s turned out to be a really valuable lesson over the years.”

3. Listen to your customer

Getting out of the building and talking to customers in the market is also another factor Forsyth attributes to her success, and it’s a consideration that has shaped many of KeepCup’s commercial decisions.

“We went to a design market in Federation Square, and in six hours we sold 1000 cups,” she said.

Those early sales helped validate the market’s desire for the product in its early stages.

“We were discussing how KeepCup would work — we thought, is it going to be about sustainability or fun and colour?” she said. 

“We saw what the answer was after a man spent 45 minutes deciding between charcoal and soft grey.”

Forsyth said combining a “problem people were already thinking about” with a “design that looks familiar” and “isn’t too much of a stretch to what people are used to” was crucial in developing the product with the customers in mind, and ultimately crucial for KeepCup’s success.

4. Find the right distribution channels 

“In Australia, KeepCup grew with the independent scene, and we found a distribution network no one was using: cafes,” Forsyth said.  

“Before KeepCup, cafes only sold food and coffee, so we gave them another revenue stream.” 

This approach worked well when KeepCup scaled to the UK, where it “got in at ground zero” with the burgeoning coffee scene.

Yet distribution and manufacturing proved harder than Forsyth had originally expected, because the high cost of manufacturing in the UK conflicted with KeepCup’s commitment to local manufacturing.

“The vision has always been we want to locally manufacture and create a sustainable story in every market we are in,” she told the summit.  

“It was more expensive to make it in UK than to make to Australia and ship to UK, and commercially it didn’t make sense [to manufacture in the UK],” she said. 

Despite this added cost, Forysth “took a leap of faith” in the hope that UK consumers would buy locally-produced offerings — one she said “paid off” when consumers were eager to purchase the product.

You have to do it, you have to be true to your values. You have to put bank on the [hope that the] reasons you’re in business will resonate with the consumer,” she said. 

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