Plenty of businesses – surely the best ones – sprout from someone being unhappy about something and attempting a solution. This was the case for Ben Young, founder of frank green reusable coffee cups and its associated app, CaféPay, which lets you pay for your daily latte with a chip that’s hidden within the cup’s lid. Before hatching his now-thriving Melbourne-based startup, Ben worked within the merger and acquisitions sector of waste management. He realised that rather than manage waste after the fact, the smarter move would be to alter the behaviours that create waste in the first place.
“My last corporate job, before I kind of went full-gas on frank green, I learnt about what actually happens with waste. A staggering 38 per cent of Australia’s landfill is actually single-use coffee cups or water bottles, and I think consumers have been conditioned [to believe] that it goes in a bin and gets recycled, and that’s not true. Only even 7 per cent of what goes in a recycle bin actually becomes a recycled product. It’s just really devastating.”
To do something great, you can’t do 10 things at once. You’re going to have to be absolutely dedicated to what you’re doing and give it 110 per cent, because you’re not just coming up with an idea, it’s got to execute.
Learning this, Ben buried himself in consumer research on why people continue to opt for single-use, non-recyclable coffee cups. He learned that what was currently on offer needed some sprucing in the style and functionality departments.
A self-described “fail-fast” entrepreneur, Ben learnt a few things the hard (and expensive) way. “I made two cups before the frank green smart cup that I have today. These cups looked like the current version, so we always had the aesthetics right, but in terms of functionality, over a period of six months, it would start to leak and would wear out and be weird.”
Having reached full production on these earlier versions, hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost in the process. “So yeah, the biggest mistake I could make, I made. After the success of my corporate career, I just thought I could just walk up to this and make this happen. Of course, I failed miserably.”
Now CEO to a team of 50, Ben has overcome former challenges with attracting staff. “It is worth saying now people want to work for frank green, but in the early days we had to prove to them we were actually worthy of their time. So yeah, things have changed.” These days, he’s proud of the hires he’s made, particularly for cultural fit and can-do attitudes all ’round. “I’m really proud of how nothing is ever too big, but they think about things in terms of what we’re trying to achieve as our vision, as opposed to just a day-in, day-out task.”
Having been in the game now for six years, what’s Ben’s advice for entrepreneurs at the start of their journey? “Yeah, it’s two things. Make sure it’s the right time of your life; there’s going to be collateral damage in terms of your entrepreneurial journey. To do something great, you can’t do 10 things at once. You’re going to have to be absolutely dedicated to what you’re doing and give it 110 per cent, because you’re not just coming up with an idea, it’s got to execute. There will be collateral damage in terms of your relationships, so be wary of that and be okay with it.”
The second sound piece of advice Ben offers is to ensure you’re solving a market problem. In the case of frank green, each time a cup is used, the cafe in question saves anywhere between 20-40 cents. Over a year, for each customer that’s been converted to a reusable cup, the cafe saves $100. Not too shabby.
In terms of the coffee drinker, “We’re solving a problem because consumers want a more stylish, functional, innovative product as a reusable, so it’s more like an accessory than just a mundane reusable product.” Meaning not only does it work, but the pastel, customisable cups are highly Instagrammable too. “Our Instagram following just keeps going up every day. I’m just blown away every time I see all these people posting things about frank green and this evangelical following that we’re getting. As in, people being part of a movement,” says Ben. “People want to be seen with frank green because it ticks all their boxes.”