As the world may be finally waking up to the challenge that plastic is presenting out environment, and for many, the plastic beverage bottle is one of the products that is front and center.
In Hong Kong though, the people at Urban Spring think they have a solution that will help reduce the number of plastic bottles that the city is sending to landfill. Something that over the last two months has grown more urgent as China has closed its borders to waste imports.
To learn more about their mission, and how they are attacking the challenge of getting consumers to act more responsibly, I spoke with their CEO Ada Yip to learn more.
This interview is about solving one of the biggest problems we face through sustainable consumer change.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
Ada is the Executive Director at Urban Spring, a purpose-driven start-up with a mission to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic in Hong Kong through the provision of safe and modern water drinking experience.
Ada is also a co-founder of 43 Ventures which invests financial and human capital in innovative social start-ups.
Follow Ada and Urban Spring
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
RICH: Welcome back everyone. Thank you for joining. We are here with Ada Yip who is with Urban Spring and we are standing in front of their Well product, which is just going out to the market. We’re here to talk to day about social entrepreneurship, building a project that changes mindsets and really just maintaining a positive attitude as your building your enterprise going forward. So we hope you enjoy this episode, if you do please like, share and comment.
RICH: So do me a favor and give us an introduction about yourself and about Well.
ADA YIP: So I’m born and brought up in Hong Kong. So home grown sort of Asian girl and you know I’ve been in actually in a corporate world for more than 15 years. The four years ago I decided that I want to explore social entrepreneurship and got to network with a lot of people you know, meet the fonder of Urban Strain, which Well is our first product. That’s how I got into you know starting to work with the company two years ago and develop the product. Well is basically a new design water station, which we hope that people would refill. You know, really develop, redevelop that trust with drinking water outside home and offices. So the mission really is to reduce consumption of single use plastic bottles. We want to provide that alternative.
RICH: So you’re trying to basically get rid of the plastic bottle at the end of the day.
ADA YIP: I hope so.
THE PLASTIC PROBLEM
RICH: Why is that a problem? I think we’ve all seen on the news, in the oceans, but is there a particular problem with plastic and single use plastic in Hong Kong itself?
ADA YIP: Every single day we’ve got 5 million tons of plastic waste just a day in Hong Kong. Majority of those are actually plastic bottles. The majority of the plastic bottle is actually water bottles so that’s why were’ coming from so it’s really a huge problem and we’re just talking about Hong Kong. As far as I know, all the major cities in the world each year is a double digit increase in bottle sales.
RICH: Now I kind of think like when it comes to these issues, we’ve had NGOs for years tell us that we should reduce, reuse, recycle that we should bring our own bottles, things like that. It hasn’t worked. I mean, honestly, we’re still using more and more plastic every day. How is your approach different? I mean you’re using your building product, you’re bringing a business solution, how is this different than just pure advocating? How do you think this might change the market?
ADA YIP: I think you know Richard, you hit the point. I mean, we are providing a product i.e. an alternative. So I think that nonprofit world actually has done a fantastic job basically educating and bringing that awareness in the past you know decade actually. But bringing you the bulk bottle, it helps, but then if I’m really thirsty in the middle of Causeway Bay or Central, I cannot find water I cannot refill. I’m really thirsty. I have to go into convenience store and supermarket and buy.
Today I am offering an alternative, i.e. if you bring your own bottle, or if you buy your first disposable of the day, you can actually go and refill as opposed to buy another one. You know, if no more like in a really hot day, people buy 2 or 3 but ends up only buy one for laze people that don’t bring their own bottles, we’re already saving a lot. So I think having that alternative giving people that choice is important. So I think we worked, I see it as a collaboration with the charities basically did they very good with advocating working with the government on communication and education and we focus on the product and work with them on that communication and awareness and all that.
More importantly I think what we try to do its really bring the product. i.e not everyone is environmentally friendly, but every one wants to look cool. Everyone has got an attitude how they want to live a sustainable life and we hope to provide that option.
MARKETING THE IDEA
RICH: How do you change the mindsets? I mean you know we talked about, I was actually kind of thinking I’ve started carrying my own hot and cold bottles now. I’ll go to Starbucks with one if I want a hot or cold coffee. How do you get people to think that this is cool? Because eventually, even not just cool, like I’m not going to embarrassed by carrying this bottle around with me to a meeting. How….is that because you like try different bottles, you try different cups? But at some point you still have to carry the thing around, so how do you help people just realize that it’s ok to carry this around?
ADA YIP: I mean as you say the toughest is actually not the product all those were quite painful to do product development. The toughest thing for our business is changing peoples behavior you know to a point about actually carrying a bottle. So I think a couple of things I think one is from a sort of branding perspective and how we position ourselves. I’m not fighting against convenience. You know because whether its Hong Kong or some other country, buying and dumping more recycling it’s so easy.
So I think it’s about how carrying that bottle or cup, it’s basically a reflection of who you are. A lot of consumer brands are actually doing that. So, if people feel that you know a gentleman with a suit on for you that they are kind of cool carrying you know that chain store cup, you know around and you know almost a display of their way of life having that morning coffee. Why would they not feel that if I portrayed also saved with a certain image.
It’s very tricky. But, I think the younger generation definitely have already bought into the idea. So, I think it’s how good the infrastructure.
RICH: Who’s the easiest to turn over right now for you? Do you just focus on them only and then work on the harder people later or do you invest into the people because the return is so much greater later? Like upfront it’s more difficult. How do you make that decision?
ADA YIP: You know its tricky. I would say the early adopters would be the younger people and the people who are doing sports. People already carrying the bottle. Almost I’m basically providing the convenience for them. Then for corporate, that’s also who I want to target, but probably the corporate who want to get consumers or want to be in line with the younger people sporting people. So that would be my early adopters and then I move on to the semi convert and then the hardest one ya know they were further down the line. I think just like any products, I can’t aim on day one to the selling and basically influence in every single person. So I think it’s really up to us with the resources that we have, how do you strategize and work with different parties to make a bigger impact and they’re showing maybe a long time.
RICH: Who’s going to pay for this at the end of the day? Because you walk up…do you walk up, pay for this with your phone? Like how does this work?
ADA YIP: So today, its paid by the venue that holds. So for example the shopping center they see it as part of customer service. For schools it’s part of the facilities. Later on we would develop which to reach the payment feature because as we roll out to more space I can imagine there would be a common shop that cannot basically provide this for free to use it. But I do you know if this is a good replacement of them selling bottled water, they were great they don’t have to keep inventory, you know soo ..
RICH: So they can sell this.
ADA YIP: Yeah so they can sell basically per refill. So you know so they’re different payment models. This early stage we’re lucky to be working with people who would be basically hosting as a subscription. We trying not to sell the product the reason so that like a photocopy machine. That we are, we can maintain the brand basically do our own servicing, make sure everything is good system and standard servicing.
RICH: So appear to look out say 5 years from now, what do you want your kep metrics of success? So if you look back and you say we succeeded, what would success be for you? The number of bottles? What’s….
ADA YIP: I think the answer is I see situations where people are competing, how good looking the water bottles are. Or people you know in a group of friends, someone being you know making a comment say what are you doing with a disposable? That will be a scenario that I would like to see if that’s the sort of part of a movement that we are part of. I will be really excited.
Obviously is from business perspective and the traditional matrix will be around how many of this get installed. To me, I think the behavior and how people see disposable, how people are embracing news, it is probably more satisfying. But from you know obviously form the financial standpoint, it would be basically how many of these get in stores and also not just number of installation, but that how many get saved. How many water get dispensed as opposed to you know what if you consume through the plastic bottle.
EXPECTATIONS vs. REALITY
RICH: So actually I want to change here a little bit. You come from the business background, you came into the social entrepreneur background, or social inner space, what did you think about social entrepreneurship before you got into it? What do you think about it now?
ADA YIP: It was more out of interest. How does that work? I think that I’m still very positive about that. I mean I hope one day no one talks about social entrepreneurship because there is just entrepreneurs and that’s it right? So and I think the interesting thing is although we have gone up sort of that, this field called social entrepreneurship, but actually people who are in it a lot of them are not really believing in it. i.e. they still not just struggling with the business and the social impact, but really you know they don’t believe in it and the sense that they are still running it like a nonprofit.
So I think there’s still a long way to go although I’m on the positive side. How we set up not the majority i.e. we are set up as a limited company by shares. We are very, we believe in actually not distributing, not limiting the distribution of profit like some ____________(11:51). Because we truly believe we can, you know we can have a sustainable business and attracting the right investors in. You know we don’t’ have to set up a particular way so that people feel that wall is doing good some money is set aside to do it like that. It’s just this is the way we believe this is the reason we set up the company is because of that social mention and that’s it. Obviously governance, operation it needs haltering. It all needs to support that, but it doesn’t need to be restricted by certain financials.
IT’s JUST BUSINESS
RICH: Especially when you would have been starting this, there was still a premium to be called a social entrepreneur. That was actually an attractive feature, but what you’re saying is you’re actually flipping it. You see more the value and saying no, we’re just a business. Like, we have a social mission. We’re trying to solve it, but were’ not going to play the social entrepreneurship card.
ADA YIP: Yes and no. So I’m not playing that card so for people who are not understanding social entrepreneurship, I don’t call myself social enterprise. It would just confuse them more and then I got them to think so are you a charity? So, I’m just a startup with a very clean mission. That’s it. They just focus on what I am selling and operating.
But the no part it, I think we still need to have this subject or this category called social entrepreneurship because I don’t think we’re in a world that people believe business and social can come together or actually have a greater value if they do both. So we almost need to have this category so that people focus in thinking about I, discussing about it, until everyone is on the same page. Then we probably can get there and just talk about entrepreneurship. But we’re not there yet. So you know that’s why farm like this its a good channel to really just have a healthy debate . You know of different schoolof thoughts and how people approach it.
RICH: Great, I think that’s all. Thank you very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.