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Knowing When To Call In The Experts, According To KeepCup

Small Business

In every small business, there comes a point when the need to scale forces owners to look externally for expert guidance and help. It might be hiring a consultant who’s an expert in offshore manufacturing, or a PR agency to help increase brand awareness or even assist with crisis management. But in a sea of possibilities, how do you know who to choose and which traits should you be looking for?

This month we spoke with Abigail Forsyth, Managing Director of KeepCup — one of Australia’s most successful start-ups — about who to hire, and how to ensure the relationship benefits your business.

7th December, 2018

KeepCup’s Managing Director Abigail Forsyth. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Melbourne-born KeepCup has been around for over 10 years. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘We set out to solve a problem, running a business was a consequence,’ says Abigail. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The team outside their Fitzroy HQ. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Fiona Killackey
Friday 7th December 2018

‘Whilst experts can contribute skills, no one can match your passion for your own business.’ – Abigail Forsyth.

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.’

Check out KeepCup’s story and products online and follow what KeepCup is up to on Instagram.

It all started as a reaction to the horror of disposable packaging. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

KeepCups in various models and vibrant colourways. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The first keep cups were sold to the public in June 2009 at the Melbourne design market. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

While KeepCup began in 2007, it was another two years before the product hit the market, during which time they invested in hiring external expertise. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

KeepCup has ‘never had a great run with recruiters, they are motivated to protect the seller, not the buyer’. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

KeepCup has grown from 45 to 90 staff in the past 12 months. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘Like any good relationship, there has to be the right balance of simpatico, expertise and respect,’ advises Abigail. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

In addition to working with Cobalt and South Southwest, KeepCup have hired numerous consultants and agents in the past decade. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘Feel good, do good’ – a motto we can get behind. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Members of the KeepCup team. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘ 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,’ cautions Abigail. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

TIPS FOR HIRING A CONSULTANT/AGENCY

1. Clarity First

While you may not know everything you want from this relationship up front, you should be able to pinpoint three objectives well before you start looking for an expert. If hiring a HR consultant, objectives could be cementing staff structure, succession planning and a process for tackling redundancies. With a marketing consultant it could be a 1-3 year strategy, 12-month plan and building the right team for executing all of this. Consider the background you want from your consultant or agency. Is it someone who has experience with US or EU expansion, or someone who has conquered Asian markets? Are you seeking someone who is tech-savvy and has a strong eCommerce background, or are you looking for someone who has proven skills in high-end media sponsorship and collaborations? The more you know about what you want, the more chance you have of hiring someone will who meet your needs.

2. Do Your Research

The best consultants are those whose main income stream is from word-of-mouth recommendations and referrals, and who align with your business’ values and beliefs. Don’t be fooled by flashy Facebook ads, sparkling webinars, high follower counts on social media or a swish website. Start by asking your own networks who they might recommend — whether using email, LinkedIn or even within closed business groups. Contact places like General Assembly (https://generalassemb.ly/), Creative Mornings (https://creativemornings.com/), local universities or local government start-up offices, as often they will have a list of people they can recommend. Once you have a list of potentials, don’t be afraid to ask for referrals or look at their past client list and contact them directly.

3. Set Objectives

Just as you would when hiring staff for your business, discuss with the consultant or agency what you’d like to see them achieve within 30, 60 and 90 days (if the project lasts that long) and be REALLY clear about who does what. Scope the project and ensure they’re clear on what they need to perform. Insist on regular catch-ups along the way to ensure things are on track and make sure you have an agenda for each of these meetings. It’s far better to spot an issue early on, than to realise at the end that your idea of what needed to happen and theirs were worlds apart.

4. Get Practical & Save Time

Most consultants will charge on an hourly or project basis and, in the majority of cases, the fees will be substantial. To get the most out of their time (and your money!) ensure you have everything they’ll need set up before the project commences. This could be things like your business and marketing plans, brand documents, annual review documents, manufacturing specs, passwords for tools / platforms they’ll need to access, calendar of key milestones, your org charts, an overview of key contacts within the business and even things like parking information if they’re working with you in a physical location.

5. Know When To Say Goodbye

Like any relationship, know when to part. While it may be awkward or downright uncomfortable, remember it’s your business and you’re in control of setting its direction. By outlining objectives and scoping things from the start, it should be clear to both parties whether or not things are working out. Ask the consultant or agency to create a handover document or report so if you do choose to work with someone else, they have a clear understanding of the work that’s already been done.

Fiona Killackey is a business consultant and mentor for My Daily Business Coach. You can sign up to her weekly email full of small biz insights and tips here .

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First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net