Cupclub founder Safia Qureshi is an award-winning architect and innovation designer turned green techpreneur.
She embraces a “don’t defer. Do it now. Get shit done approach to life in general.”
In business, she believes in being “pragmatic, practical, and as open and transparent with everyone as possible,” and she balances this with an empathetic approach:
“Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that everyone comes in at a different stage or a different level. Be quite empathetic in the way that you approach your own information and then try and engage with different team members and stakeholders.”
On a night out, she loves, “having an amazing meal with my other half. Finding a new pop up by an amazing chef, or visiting one of our favourite music festivals – we usually go to Barcelona for that, for the Primavera Sound.”
Safia’s journey into green techpreneurship began in 2015. She had become fascinated with the concept of the circular economy and outlined a new brief for her design agency: “to come up with some solutions that addressed global problems whether environmental or on sustainability.”
Her lightbulb moment happened soon after on a train.
“I was sat on a train and saw a few guys drinking coffee out of identical cups which they got from the same place. At the end of the last stop, they all got up to throw their cup into the same bin. I observed that they started their journey in the same place. They ended their journey in the same place and they had an identical product.
“I recorded it and drew it like a diagram in my sketchbook.
“I thought – why not have something that is serviced and has an opportunity to send that product back whether it’s washed or reserviced. So turning this entire thing into a service economy rather than a linear waste economy.”
That was the spark for a business that would tackle one of the world’s worst plastic pollution problems: globally, 16 billion disposable coffee cups are used each year. The vast majority of these aren’t recycled. Year after year, they’re piling up in landfill and choking our oceans and rivers.
But Cupclub helps companies take responsibility for the impact of their waste. It’s an end-to-end returnable packaging service that delivers, picks up, and washes cups so they can be reused. RFID technology is used to track cups and people are given incentives to return the cups they used.
Cupclub services offices, in-house cafes, and closed-loop venues and has been trading since August 2018: “We’ve had about 350,000 transactions so far.
“We’re looking to grow now as we’re about to launch in Paulo Alto. So we’ll be going into another market and we’re aiming to reach a target of 7 million this year.”
What did it take to get your idea off the ground?
In the beginning, it starts around – is this the right solution for the market? Then, am I the right person to be doing this? Why wouldn’t it be 50,000 other people? Then it’s trying to position yourself in the market. Understanding the landscape and understanding who’s going to be on your side.
We had to build from the ground up from nothing. It didn’t exist. It meant that we have to do multiple selling to the market. We weren’t selling to end-users or potential customers. We were selling to operators so that we could set up a supply chain with those operators.
Understanding who they are and finding these operators and selling this opportunity to them – an opportunity which didn’t exist – that they hadn’t seen before. That’s a very different approach. So that was the first stumbling block.
Once you have a supply chain set up, it’s about really trying to prove the gross margins to move in from theory to reality and understanding where the true costs are.
Pitching to investors – don’t give up!
When you’re setting up a start-up for the first time, you don’t understand the investment landscape.
Now we’ve got some great investors. But funnily enough, the one that is one of our favourites, we pitched to them three times. We only got it the third time.
The first two times we were just so early in the market that they didn’t understand or see the value in investing. You’re not going to attract investment because people don’t want you to burn away their investment before the market is ready for your product or service.
What are your tips for selling a circular economy product?
You have to demonstrate that with a circular economy product, it’s never as straightforward as a like for like swap with an existing product or service that they might be using. They’re swapping out and changing their supply chain, so there’s higher risk, more training required on their side. Because what circular economies do is combine different types of cost lines. Spending will be amalgamated into a product so the pricing will be more expensive.
When you’re trying to sell a service you have to explain to a business that we are eliminating waste, so if you add up the cost of you purchasing the single-use disposable packaging as well as the cost of waste management, we are price comparable. But if you try and compare just the price of the packaging itself with our service, we are not price comparable. You have to prove that to them from a place of genuine transparency. It’s a process, it’s not the easiest process.
What helps you get through challenges?
People. So one of the really important things is that we’ve had a lot of great support from the beginning from investors and a network of advisors.
It’s the things which you don’t know how to anticipate which are the hardest. And in times when you have a lot of uncertainty, you need to go to these people and sit down and explain a scenario and say – these are the options, what do you think?
These are people who are much older who already have some level of experience and can give you their guidance, so that’s generally the best way of really building up your resilience in a space which has a lot of unknowns.
What are your three top tips for other Green Techpreneurs?
Start with one type of product
Make your product as focused as possible. Start with one type of product. If you’re building a brand with one particular type of product or category, don’t try and do a few different things. You can grow your one specific type of product out over time.
Look at how you can make it data-driven. When you’re building this kind of brand, you know exactly why, but can you say how much better it is? And be able to measure and quantify that?
If you label yourself as a green brand or an eco-company that is very important. Be data-driven and measured. Know your stuff. Come to the table with really well-defined research, measure your impact. That will help you stand apart.
Figure out cost implications at an early stage
Figure out the cost implications of your product at an early stage. Why would a potential customer pay more or the equivalent for your product and service over what they’re currently doing?
Which adjectives best describe your Cupclub journey?
Delight. Surprise. Discovery. Breakthrough. Rewarding. Uncertainty.
It’s kind of like going through a black hole and then coming out at the other end and breaking through.
The reaction to people using your product and being very engaged with it. When your main core business is trying to do some great things, you naturally feel the warm and fuzzies.
Another key aspect of the journey would be tough or challenging times. Sometimes things you are really really certain about actually do a complete U-turn. That’s ok. We’ve learnt through this when something hasn’t worked. It’s not like you come back to square 1, you come back to square 5.
………………If Safia could teleport herself 5 years down the road, she’d probably be doing “exactly what I’m doing right now. I’d be jumping on a plane every couple of weeks flying off somewhere and launching new customer locations and I might be launching some kind of standards around food systems.
“I might be teaching at MIT or Harvard at that point or building certain educational practices to make this sort of an approach to returnable packaging something that other people can pick up and scale or understand. I’d be involved in knowledge sharing, intelligence sharing.”
Safia’s book recommendations:
The Lean Start-up Guide by Eric Ries
The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout
A networking event you should go to:
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