Zig-Zagging to Sustainability: A Case Study on MugShare

This is one of a series of case studies on lessons learned from starting sustainable businesses!

  • Sometimes, typical ‘entrepreneurship’ advice doesn’t work for social ventures. People’s incentives might be different for a social cause.
  • For student founders, there’s really no better environment than a university with a strong focus on entrepreneurship :-)
  • For student founders, teams can sometimes have strangers or people that aren’t aligned on the same vision. This was okay in school projects, but needs to be fixed UPFRONT in a business.

Melanie Chanona LOVES to solve problems.

Even as a student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), she’s done everything from modelling the physics of the oceans during her PhD to taking part in sustainability clubs to help her university go green. When you talk to her, you can just FEEL her let’s-get-it-done (and here’s exactly how we’re going to do it) attitude :-)

That’s why you’d be surprised to hear that one of her biggest projects — a social enterprise helping reduce waste from restaurants and cafes — almost came about as an accident…

New cup design at MugShare.

It all got started from UBC’s recent efforts to reduce waste on their campus. They had started offering students reusable containers for their food services, which was going well. But Melanie and her team noticed there wasn’t a reusable option to also reduce waste from drinks containers. That’s why they got together and thought they could help the university implement reusable drinking mugs as well! It would just be a small project for UBC’s favourite sustainability club, right..?

Well, the issue was that to get these reusable mugs to be available on UBC’s campus, they had to partner with a lot of cafes across the university. This included some franchises, who were so receptive to the idea that they even adopted these reusable mugs in two locations outside of UBC’s campus. That’s how Melanie’s team realised that their idea DIDN’T have to be just limited to their university. So, their club project eventually turned into Mugshare, a social enterprise that helps small restaurants and cafes start using reusable drinking containers! Now, customers can just grab a reusable mug from any of Mugshare’s partner locations and drop it off at another one when they’re done.

Though the business sounds simple, there were SO many unexpected twists and turns in their journey. To start with, Melanie’s team had to decide how they were going to solve the problem of too many disposable drinks containers. With inspiration from existing programs like ReCUP and by using systems analysis frameworks like the iceberg model, they decided to focus on solving the infrastructural gaps in this problem.

The first challenge to overcome was signing on cafes to participate in their program. Obviously, if Mugshare’s value proposition was that you could pick up your reusable mug from one cafe and drop it off at another — it was a little difficult to convince the first cafe to sign on without any others. Still, it wasn’t the most difficult thing to find 10 business owners who really cared about sustainability — as opposed to immediately trying to partner with large franchises like Starbucks.

The BIG issue though, was the simplest one: which mug to use??? Mugshare had to consider things like how complicated the mugs were to clean, how expensive they were, and even tiny details like whether they could stack on top of each other for cafes to store. Unfortunately, the mugs they trialled for a 6-month pilot couldn’t stand up to the wear and tear of a commercial reuse program. So they had to go back to the drawing board to find a new mug.

Still, once they got those logistics challenges worked out, they received a lot of positive feedback! They even had restaurants reaching out from other cities in Canada and the U.S. that wanted Mugshare to expand to their area. With this increased attention, Melanie REALLY benefited from getting to know the business owners Mugshare worked with one-on-one. Anytime they’d have a new idea (like using a new mug design), Melanie could talk to the owners and get their ideas on each change they planned. It was that iteration that led Mugshare to be successful and start growing! They’re now working towards a milestone of reaching 100 cafes/restaurants across Vancouver, Canada.

  • Mugs were borrowed 10,000 times during their 6-month pilot. During the pilot, mugs were returned in reusable condition 70% of the time on average. (Ie. they weren’t kept, lost, or broken)
  • During their pilot, all business owners wanted to continue with the program. This paused due to COVID, but many business owners still want to adopt the program again after the pandemic.

One thing that really worked well for Mugshare was that it was founded on the UBC campus. Melanie’s team had SO much support with entrepreneurship resources, space to work, and funding that wouldn’t have been accessible anywhere else! To this date, they haven’t had to invest a single dime.

One thing that was a REALLY big challenge was that Melanie’s team didn’t expect Mugshare to become an entire company. As the program scaled up, people were still volunteering to take part. And the commitments became 10–20 hours a week on top of the students’ studies. They simply hadn’t thought of the possibility that Mugshare would grow this fast to this extent! So they hadn’t put up a safety net in place for how to slow down and plan things out when they got there. As a result, many people on Melanie’s team felt a lot of burnout.

On top of this, Mugshare had a lot of catching up to do when it was rapidly forced to transition from a club project to a business. They hadn’t ever heard about things like buying business insurance or how to incorporate a business. So it would have been EXTREMELY helpful to have connected with available resources for small businesses earlier. Later, Mugshare was able to join an incubator and get advice from experts like lawyers, etc. in the local community.

Still, though Melanie’s team hadn’t planned on being in this position, they quickly adapted their mindsets. No one had ever planned on being an entrepreneur, but they learned about the value of pursuing for-profit ventures to be able to solve important problems. Though there’s a conception that any organisation doing good for the world must be nonprofit, Melanie thinks that financial viability and problem-solving can go hand-in-hand when it now comes to Mugshare’s social venture model.

So what advice would Melanie have for other founders in her position — university students who really love to solve problems, but maybe hadn’t thought about the idea of entrepreneurship before?

A major skill that she learned was the importance of learning to build a strong team culture. When you’re just working on a club project, you’ll inevitably attract people from all walks of life. But when Mugshare transitioned to being a business, they HAD to make sure that everyone was on the same page regarding their vision and values. Melanie had to create that shift in the way she thought about building a team and getting to know a team as being extremely valuable — not a distraction from solving the main problem.

And on the note of values, Melanie still thinks she’s not a typical ‘entrepreneur.’ She still sees herself as the person just trying to solve problems and sometimes doesn’t like ‘typical entrepreneurship’ advice. For example, she was often told by mentors that Mugshare needed to emphasise the cost-savings aspect of reusability for restaurants and cafes to want to participate in their program. But when Melanie actually talked to the owners working with them, their motivation for joining Mugshare was their own love for the environment. As she puts it, there IS a large demand for helping business owners sleep more easily at night… without taking too much of their time!

If you found that case study helpful, GO THANK MugShare for making this possible!! And check out the next case study here :-)

Cofounder at The Plastic Shift. Learning how to create a sustainable planet. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/