Posted: Fri 3rd Feb 2012
"I've always been quite entrepreneurial," says self-confessed coffee obsessive Jeremy Knight. "I do believe that ideas come from actions and momentum. You must be open to other opportunities when they come along. "But I've also learnt that you need to build a foundation around your primary product and service to get it going and you need to be good at what you do," the Greencup founder continues. "You can't be all things to all people from the start. I was always into coffee so good coffee is at the heart of everything."
Jeremy's passion for coffee really started to take shape in 2001 when he founded Greencup's parent company, Redcup. A restless soul, he had spent his adult life flitting from one field to another - first he was an estate agent and then he founded a cleaning business, before landing a job as a salesman for a vending machine company. With the first stirrings of what's now become a fully-fledged 'coffee culture' in the UK, Jeremy realised there was an enormous gap in the corporate market for a vending machine that produces a decent, fresh cup of coffee for employees. That was his first good idea. To cut a longish story short, Jeremy built a machine, got Redcup off the ground, picked up customers and started making inroads into a sizeable market. Then he had his second good idea. "I had a meeting with a chap who runs an American charity called Coffee Kids," he recalls. "He told me that one of his donors makes more money from old coffee than new coffee. "I Googled 'coffee waste' when I got home and all sorts of amazing things came up about the uses of old coffee for gardens, because the nutrients in the coffee waste are good for plants. So I started to explore all the options and thought I would go ahead and give this a go and learn as I do it," he explains. "We started collecting old coffee from clients and composting it. But I wasn't really satisfied with that - we tried lots of ways to compost and treat it and nothing seemed to work."
It was frustrating. Jeremy was only too aware of the amount of coffee waste produced in the UK each month (27,680 tons by current estimates) and its contribution to global warming (365kg of CO2 for every ton of coffee that waste that goes to landfill) - and he had a pretty good idea of how much waste was generated by his own business. He wanted to do something about it. It was another chance encounter with a fellow coffee obsessive that helped him over the obstacle. Industrial product designer Adam Fairweather was trying to create a solid material based on waste coffee that could be moulded to create furniture and domestic fittings. But Jeremy persuaded him to work on compost instead. Together, they recruited scientists from Imperial College in London, experimented with different combinations of coffee grounds and other substances and eventually cracked it. "We came up with a natural fertiliser that was easy to use, didn't go mouldy, didn't stink and would work in the garden as a mulch. We also proved that it has slug repellent properties because they don't like to cross the coffee barrier."
Having the extra product has opened up a wealth of possibilities for the business. For example, Greencup - now a formal offshoot of Redcup - provides a recycling service to customers that makes them a more attractive supplier. The fertiliser produced from the collected waste has also created an extra revenue stream - it's now sold through Nottcutts garden centres and a number of smaller independent garden centres, too. But Jeremy is less concerned about making additional profit for the business (in fact, Greencup's profits go to charity) than he is in providing an 'added value' service that differentiates Greencup from other firms in the industry. Greencup's principles also fulfil his own mission to create and promote social responsibility through his business. "It's become a really good added value to my business that I can go to my clients and offer a service that helps their corporate social responsibility by removing waste from landfill and the waste stream," he explains. "Clients respond to it really well. But coffee is the foremost thing. It's important that people like the initial product."
Jeremy's openness to collaboration and his desire to underpin every aspect of the business with an ethical principle has led to other partnerships, too. Greencup's coffee is supplied by a family-run Swedish firm, LÃ¶fbergs Lila, that sources organic and fair trade coffee. The profits generated by recycling go to Coffee Kids, which works with coffee-producing families around the world. For every coffee machine sold by the Redcup, a donation is made to Trees for Cities that enables them to plant a tree in an urban environment. Then there's the furniture. Adam's experiments with solid materials mean the company now produces bespoke furniture and fittings made partly from waste coffee and aprtly from recycled plastic coffee cups. Yup, coffee and cups. So far, they've kitted out their own Coffee Lab in London where they teach clients how to make a perfect cup of coffee, and Google's coffee lab for employees. It's yet another revenue stream. What Jeremy is demonstrating with Greencup is the potential that almost any business has to build on a core product or service. He's recycling waste, selling two new products (with more potentially on the way) and provides after-sales training to clients. Aside from extra revenue, these activities go a long way to making Greencup the most attractive supplier in their market. "I started out as me in my bedroom. I was engineer, managing director, salesman, delivery boy"¦ My USP was simply to take great coffee from bean to cup in vending machines at work," he stresses. "Everyone told me not to do it and there were lots of reasons not to do it - we'd just had a baby and bought a big house. "But running a business is all about perseverance and believing in what you do. I learned to stick to what I was good at and my core business is still coffee. Greencup has taken me a few years to get right, but I was determined to do it." It's amazing what you can achieve on a simple cup of coffee.
Every Friday is Free Range Friday on Enterprise Nation, where we write about fresh, fun and innovative business ideas - whether to do with improving products and services or simply making businesses run better. We'd love your contributions. Are you doing anything new? Have you spotted anything that's a little out of the ordinary? Email your ideas to our editor or speak to us on Twitter using the hasthag #FreeRangeFriday. Photo credit: Chris Collins