How a reusable cup business navigated the COVID crisis

Safia Qureshi's Cupclub developed strategic new lines of business

Safia Qureshi’s Cupclub – a company on a mission to replace millions of throwaway cups with an end-to-end returnable cup service - was off to a great start in 2020. Safia was expanding her ingenious reuse service in the US, had large scale pilot projects underway, and was trialling her solution with big-name multinationals – MacDonalds and Starbucks. It was a pioneering circular economy business to be proud of - putting guilt-free on-the-go convenience into the hands of coffee lovers.

But then the unimaginable happened. The unstoppable tsunami of the Covid pandemic spread across the globe, unleashing widespread societal change. The world ground to a halt.

What would happen to a young returnable cup business that serviced offices, cafes and closed-loop venues? Would it survive the pending lockdown or be forced to retreat and scale back plans?

For Cupclub, it was time to stop and reflect, forge new paths and search for opportunities amidst the chaos.


 What stage was Cupclub at when COVID hit?

We had launched in the US market for the first time with next-gen consortium brands - Starbucks, McDonald's, Coca Cola. The collaboration was put together by industry partners. Cupclub was selected to help identify and design a reusable system that would be able to scale for some of these major restaurant players and coffee brands, bringing the opportunity of reuse in the everyday takeaway space. We launched our pilot in the US Bay Area with a new operations partner across eight locations.

We were very lucky, we managed to conclude the pilot just before things started shutting down with Covid. I flew out of the Bay area. At that point, I thought, ‘this is not going to go well. Wow, it's going to be a movie disaster.’  

What was the immediate impact on your business?

Covid has paused and delayed actual operations for about nine months, but behind the scenes, it sped up our product expansion plans. We were not in any hurry to develop our food-to-go; it was in our pipeline for 2021. We’ve ramped everything up so we can deliver this quick to respond to new customer needs.

We paused to see what was going to happen next. We haven’t resumed in the Bay Area since, but we've taken all the data we gathered into our product lines. We will be relaunching within the market in 2021.

The results of the pilot were stellar, we managed a conversion rate of 20%, which means that people were coming to every one of those retail outlets and opting in for reuse. That 20% for us is the crucial target. It tested end-user appetite and gave us positive insights for understanding whether there’s the right mindset for a product and service like this. Is it convenient enough, and are the dynamics of cost and how it works effective?

How did your team respond to the sudden market change?

You start with a ‘how might we’ question

Two weeks after the pandemic happened, by the end of March, we sat down and workshopped on it. We treated it as a new brief. It's always helpful to brainstorm with your team.

You have to figure out, what is the new brief? How might we cater to the new needs of our customers and their end-users?’ How do you answer to that? Who is needed to deliver it? How much time is it going to take? What is the impact of it on business? What is going to happen with your existing customer base, and how do you manage them? With certain customers, we said, ‘we don't quite know how this is going to turn out, so let's just keep having that conversation.’

There's ebb and flow. At the edge of a river, you will have things that will collect and then at another point, things will wash away, and that is exactly what a market scenario like this will do in your business.

In any market change, we have a cycle that will end, and then another cycle will start. You have to accept that it’s okay this cycle is ending, and now I need to move on to the next one. There should be a flow that goes from one cycle to the other, and you accept that not everyone is going to be in a new cycle.

How did you innovate to respond to changing consumer needs? 

The idea is not to design for the immediate - it's to ensure that what you designed will scale - you're not just responding to this one moment in time. We know food and beverage are essential; the market won't disappear. Our approach was: people need to eat and drink, and they need to be sustained, what’s the mechanism which they’ll use to do that? What are the trends we can see and what are people’s aspirations? 

We have been developing return-on-the-go systems, but now we are adding return-from home systems. We've been engineering a system whereby someone who previously would have gone out, can experience our service in the home.

Covid has accelerated digitalisation, brands that weren’t present online suddenly are now, creating room for more reuse. We’re working with a food delivery platform tool to expand into food and beverage delivery, so people have the opportunity to opt into reusables with their takeaways.

New partnerships and expanded service and product lines

We have built partnerships with some of the most supportive and sector-specific government organisations – the London Waste and Recycling Board County Council, and the main owner of King’s Cross estate. Our ambition is to create the first Zero Waste destination in London - in King's Cross.

We’ll be launching across several restaurants and cafes in that area - combining a hyperlocal return on-the-go experience with return-from-home. There will be a visible network of drop-off points across the entire estate and participation from offices. It’s a great testing nucleus, and then we’ll expand it out, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

What’s on the horizon for you in 2021?

Over the last six months it's been a combination of fewer operations happening, but a lot more product acceleration. So because Covid enabled us to focus more on the product side and get things ready, when the market opens up, it's going to be an incredible time to see it all come out.

We'll be scaling our new service lines - zero-waste city launches, and bringing our return-from-home option to takeaways. 2021 is going to be a very, very big year for us.


The Green Techpreneur is written by Marianne Lehnis.
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