With its novel anti-spill lid, the reusable TOPL cup could save keyboards and papers everywhere from a drenching. Emily Moore meets the Jersey entrepreneur behind the innovation
WE have all been there. Whether balancing a cup while juggling armfuls of shopping or reaching across the desk to answer the phone, we have experienced that heart-in-the-mouth moment as the mug of coffee has tipped over – often agonisingly slowly – dispensing its contents across our new purchases or our keyboard, papers and other paraphernalia.
And, even as we curse and reach for the cleaning supplies, we know that, given our busy lifestyles and dependence on that caffeine kick, this is unlikely to be the last time that we are confronted with such a mess.
But, thanks to the efforts of Jersey-born entrepreneur Eleanor Humphrey and her father, Stewart, such mishaps could be a thing of the past.
The former Jersey College for Girls student had graduated from Cardiff University with a degree in law and French and was studying for her post-graduate legal qualification when her creative side came to the fore and she and her father decided to launch TOPL – a business based on a novel anti-spill lid mechanism.
‘The catalyst for the business was to use magnetic technology to prevent everyday coffee spills,’ she said.
While admitting that launching a business which was far removed from the legal profession for which she was studying was somewhat daunting, Eleanor said that her upbringing made the step less intimidating than it could have been.
‘My father is in business, so I grew up in an environment where making a living from running your own business didn’t feel like too much of a stretch,’ she said.
‘It also helped that we were working together so I was able to benefit from his experience.’
Despite this, Eleanor admits that the early days of TOPL were far from plain sailing.
‘Initially, I decided to give myself a six-month break from law and see how far we could develop the business in that time,’ she reflected. ‘If we didn’t get as far as we wanted to within that period, then I planned to return to my legal career.’
Having set such a tight timeframe, Eleanor and Stewart embarked on a whirlwind period in which they finalised their launch design, travelled to China to find suppliers and raised some capital to fund the product development.
‘That may sound as though everything fell into place very quickly and easily but that wasn’t the reality at all,’ recalled Eleanor, who says that there were both advantages and challenges to launching the business in Jersey.
‘The biggest challenge for all start-ups is securing funding,’ she said. ‘Jersey doesn’t offer the same grants which are available to start-ups in the UK so you really need to develop a strong network to secure that initial capital. Luckily, Jersey is an amazing place for networking and we were lucky to be introduced to a range of investors who shared our passion for innovation and believed in TOPL, and it is thanks to their support that we have been able to grow to the level we have reached today.’
Having secured the funding and identified suppliers, the father and daughter team could have been forgiven for thinking that the biggest challenges were behind them.
But then came an event over which they had no control.
‘We started the manufacturing process a few months before Covid hit and, as all our suppliers were based in China, as soon as the pandemic started and lockdown kicked in, they downed tools and closed all the factories,’ Eleanor recalled. ‘It was a really difficult time as everything just stopped overnight. After so many months of creating something that we were really proud of, it just felt as though everything could disappear.’
While the TOPL dream did not disappear, the initial six-month deadline that Eleanor had set for getting the business off the ground stretched quite considerably with the company officially launching at the London Coffee Festival in September 2021.
‘When the pandemic receded and we started to pick up from where we had left off, we realised that the world had changed completely,’ said Eleanor. ‘While, in many ways, Covid heightened people’s awareness of the environment and sustainability, it halted the reuse movement – which had been gaining really good traction before the pandemic – in such a way that even the big chains, like Costa and Starbucks, were telling people not to bring their own cups.’
Thankfully for Eleanor and Stewart, the reuse movement is now picking up pace again, with governments stepping in to drive change by introducing taxes on single-use items. The Irish government is launching a latte levy, a 25-cent tax on disposable cups, which is likely to come into force later this year.
But the changing landscape also drove changes within TOPL, with the company’s offering evolving to a more solution-based model.
‘Critically, we had to move away from being just a reusable cup to providing complete reusable solutions for business and customers,’ Eleanor explained.
‘The coffee market is booming and it’s an exciting industry to be working in but, with that, comes a lot of competition. To stand out, we have focused on creating a more joined-up approach to reuse which links consumers more seamlessly with the coffee retail sector.
‘Instead of giving people a cup and hoping that they will use it, we are now working with coffee chains to analyse the workflow in their outlets and to understand how reusable cups can be introduced in a way which still enables the teams to service the demands of the morning rush.’
This year has already been a busy one for the team, with a full calendar of trade shows, one of which was the World of Coffee in Dubai, which Eleanor described as a ‘chance for the brand to gain traction internationally’.
‘The show was a brilliant opportunity to meet coffee industry professionals from all around the world. As a result of a successful show, we hope to launch some really exciting projects in the Middle East and India this year,’ she said. ‘After all the challenges we have faced, it feels great that we are now at a stage where a product from Jersey is about to launch across the world.’
Helping to drive this international expansion is the team’s new product, the Flow360 cup, which is designed to replicate the ‘drinking experience of an open cup, with a transparent vented lid’.
The team is also incorporating an element of software into its offering by embedding RFID chips in the base of each cup.
‘We are chipping the bases of the products and using the technology to launch a digital loyalty scheme, which incentivises people to bring their cup back on a regular basis and removes the need for physical loyalty cards,’ she said. ‘We plan to launch this with a chain of UK motorway stations which, if successful, will lead to a wider roll-out’.
With the product having come a long way since its first iteration, Eleanor says that one of the keys to TOPL’s success has been listening to the market and being prepared to make changes.
‘Flexibility is key with a start-up. Just because you have an idea, which is the initial catalyst for your business, that doesn’t mean that you need to tie yourself to it,’ she said. ‘You have to listen to the market, iterate and try new things to build on your initial ideas. One of the most valuable lessons I have learnt is that failing can be beneficial – but you have to learn to fail fast, move on and try something new, applying the learnings from that failure.
‘We launched with a minimum viable product, but the key to scaling that up has been listening to the market to evolve the offering. We regularly speak to our customers to find out what they like and dislike about our products, and that discourse is key not only to developing the brand and product range but also to growing the business.’
To meet their sustainable development goals as the business continues to grow, Eleanor hopes to bring production to the UK if possible.
‘Developing a cohesive and sustainable supply chain is crucial to our business. Managing that closer to home makes things infinitely more straightforward,’ she explained.
‘One of our learnings from the pandemic was that a long, disrupted supply chain can be make or break for a small business. Designing a product remotely is also difficult so as we plan to grow the range, staying close to the manufacturing would make things much easier.’
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