Every so often a business appears and changes the way we live our everyday lives. In the most part, these innovative companies (think Airbnb, Broadsheet or Uber) result when their founders uncover a problem that has no existing solution. It was exactly this scenario that resulted in the now globally recognised and acclaimed KeepCup. ‘My brother Jamie Forsyth and I started Bluebag cafe in Melbourne,’ starts KeepCup’s Managing Director, Abigail Forsyth. ‘Over the years we became distressed at the volume of disposable packaging we consumed as a business. We designed KeepCup as an alternative to the disposable cup, specifically for the way Australians drink their coffee’. And while Abigail admits ‘there was a positive response to KeepCup from the outset,’ she admits that she and her brother ‘set out to solve a problem, running a business was a consequence’.
While KeepCup was in design and development from 2007, it took another two years before the product hit the market, and it was during this time the Forsyth siblings invested in hiring external expertise. ‘KeepCup was designed as a local solution, but we knew the problem was global’ says Abigail, ‘At Bluebag we had done all the design ourselves (I can’t believe that looking back!), but we knew if KeepCup was to be successful it could be global, so we engaged industrial designers, Cobalt Design and creative design, South Southwest from the start. These guys, and the engineers at our manufacturer, have been our long-time collaborators’. Abigail adds that while the teams have changed over the years, ‘there is great advantage in the consistency and deep understanding both Steve Martinuzzo (Cobalt Design) and Andy Sargent (South Southwest) have of our business and its history.’
In addition to working with Cobalt and South Southwest, KeepCup have hired numerous consultants and agents in the past decade, and Abigail says all of these hires begin by finding ‘businesses who are genuinely curious about the problem you are trying to solve, and with whom you can have a robust conversation. Like any good relationship, there has to be the right balance of simpatico, expertise and respect.’ She advises small business owners to ‘do your research, listen, ask questions’ and adds that KeepCup has ‘never had a great run with recruiters, they are motivated to protect the seller, not the buyer.’
Like any element of business, hiring the right external help can bring with it both successes and challenges. When asked about challenges KeepCup have had with consultants and agencies, Abigail admits, ‘there is a great temptation in times of high stress to hand over the reins – “fix this”. Every time, the result has been poor or troubled. Any relationship where the power dynamic is a bit off, we’ve relinquished direction, the voice of the business or the voice of the customer in the work. On these occasions – and also when there seems to be high alignment – it’s more important than ever to clearly scope the work, define expectations and hold the agency accountable to the metrics you set. As businesses experience success, there are a lot of people who will line up to tap a vein, all care and no responsibility. In our experience, it’s rarely been a shortage of ideas or plans, it’s finding the people who can get the job done that is the hard part.’
It’s also, says Abigail, about finding consultants or agencies who meet what you need right now and can genuinely strengthen the business, rather than add more stress or workload to current operations. ‘We have grown from 45 to 90 staff in the past 12 months, so some colleagues recommended HR. We engaged a consultant to help map out the people we needed in the business, one recommendation was to hire People and Culture. We put an ad out, we interviewed, but it did not feel right. Senior people were too senior, I was concerned about the impact on culture in a new role, and junior staff required direction I could not provide. So after a long process, we have opted for a senior person from agency two days a week, and will reassess in six months.’
If seeking your own consultant or agency, Abigail suggests looking for three key things:
1. Are they genuinely curious about the opportunity?. Can you have a robust commercial discussion about an issue (because the best outcome requires your input and theirs)?
2. Is there an alignment of culture and values?
3. What are the metrics of success? Is there transparency and accountability?
Most of all, says Abigail, remember that ‘whilst experts can contribute skills, no one can match your passion for your own business.’ It’s this passion for responsible business and sustainability that has led KeepCup to where it is today. So, what’s next? ‘We are really interested in ways that we can deepen our commitment to responsible business and sustainability’ says Abigail, ‘We have a couple of new product developments and we’re about to launch a B2B website, deepening our relationships with key partners.’