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Founder Friday with WOSUP’s co-founders

It all started with a simple act of reusing cups, which evolved into a mission to find eco-friendly solutions that could reshape the narrative of large-scale sports and entertainment venues drowning in a sea of single-use plastics.

Introducing WOSUP (War, on Single Use Plastic) an innovative initiative that enables sports and entertainment venues along, with their fans to actively contribute towards building a future with zero waste and carbon emissions. This is made possible by embracing WOSUPs aluminum cups, which can be reused indefinitely and are easily recyclable. These cups are accompanied by cutting edge fan engagement technology that provides real time interactions.

Dynamic Business sat with co-founders Martin Salter and Karl Page to discuss their journey of uncovering the fascinating journey that sparked WOSUP’s inception. 

Q1: How did you decide to start your business? What inspired you?

Martin and Karl: As footy fans, we found ourselves at an AFL game (Sydney Swans vs Gold Coast Suns) at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in 2018; cheering in the stands, but feeling overwhelmed by the amount of disposable plastic everywhere. Beverages sold at the game were exclusively served in single-use polyethylene terephthalate (PET) cups and by the time the final siren sounded, we noticed an accumulation of thousands of discarded cups littering the stadium. During that game, we started reusing the same PET cups from our first drinks, while contemplating a more sustainable, eco-friendly solution… which is how WOSUP Australia was born. Now as then, our vision is to enable and empower large-scale sport and entertainment venues to call last drinks on ALL types of plastic cups and transition to lightweight, reusable and infinitely recyclable aluminium cups. In the global war against plastic pollution, it’s sobering to consider only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled, while 75% of all aluminium produced remains in use, positioning it as a key building block of a truly circular economy.

Martin: I have always wanted to make a positive difference by helping people in need or making a tangible impact for the good of our planet (above and beyond my own day-to-day, eco-friendly habits). I’ve also always loved being entrepreneurial, and strongly believe making money and improving the world can – and must – go hand-in-hand. As WOSUP developed, it became clear we could tangibly tackle one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges: plastic pollution. Through all the ups and downs of launching a purpose-driven startup, I’ve been inspired by “Generation Next” (Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha), now making up over half of Australia’s population, including my two daughters. For this generation, a zero-waste/zero-carbon lifestyle is king, and young people expect brands and institutions to reflect their own value system. I think that’s pretty inspiring.

Karl: As a surfer and ocean lover, my inspiration – and ongoing motivation – comes from discovering plastic pollution floating in some of the world’s most remote and untouched locations. Plastic pollution is choking our planet. Period. Without concerted action, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warns the annual flow of at least 11 million tonnes of plastic, ending up in oceans, will rise to 29 million tonnes per year by 2040, with devastating consequences for marine life. Who hasn’t heard the prediction that by 2050, we’ll see more plastic than fish in our oceans? It’s something I lose sleep about, knowing that in Australia alone, our stadiums and arenas churn through an estimated 40 to 50 million disposable plastic cups each year. Martin and I also felt inspired to take a leap of faith in launching WOSUP, buoyed by our belief that sport has the power to drive positive behavioural change, motivating people en masse to follow the lead of sporting codes, teams, and individual players; all increasingly taking a stance on social/environmental issues, with a knock-on effect (good or bad) to sponsors and brands. 

Q2: What are some of the important choices and strategies that contributed to the growth of your business?

Martin and Karl: Right from the outset, our emphasis has been on establishing a social impact enterprise, which meant choosing the right team and contractors to partner with, aligned to our mission and values. As cliched as it might sound, people – both within and outside any organisation, no matter size or purpose – will always be your greatest asset and investment. At WOSUP, we’re blessed with a highly experienced team, backed by relevant commercial and technological acumen, and a stellar Board, mirrored in the November 2023 appointment of Andy Marinos (former Rugby Australia CEO) as Chairman, and May 2023 addition of outgoing Mamamia Media Company Chief Revenue Officer, Tony Prentice. Our “people network” also extends to stakeholders in the live sport and entertainment ecosystem, who, despite pressures on the industry during and after COVID lockdowns, generously gave their time to listen and assist us in developing a sustainable commercial model, which we’re proud to say is the first of its kind globally.

Q3: What makes your business different from other businesses in the industry? How do you stay ahead and bring innovation to this market?

Martin and Karl: WOSUP’s business model as a social impact enterprise, focused on revolutionising the live sport and entertainment industry, is globally unique. There is no business like us in Australia or overseas. WOSUP aluminium cups are purposely designed to be reusable, taking the next step in offering a closed-loop, clean tech solution. Importantly, a shift to reusable (not just recyclable) products is vital in the transition from an environmentally questionable linear economy to a sustainable circular economy. By founding WOSUP, we tackle head-on an easily fixable, yet entrenched problem, that large-scale venues and events are among the world’s biggest contributors to single-use plastic cup waste. Notably, this is something that many spectators may not even question, when having fun at live events, assuming plastic cups are the only option. WOSUP’s game-changing solution turns on one simple truth: prevention is the best cure for plastic pollution, and no amount of well-intentioned plastic waste clean-ups will ever make a big enough dent, when the real answer lies in stopping production at its source. We want to reduce global use of 50 million disposable plastic cups a year by 2030 and help sport and entertainment sectors, in Australia and globally, become carbon neutral by 2050 (the year Australia has legislated to reach net-zero emissions). 

Karl: Our first objective was to find a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to disposable or reusable plastic cups used at live venues and events across the sport and entertainment industry, starting in Australia. Wanting to lead by example and show people and planet can indeed come before profit, we took the next step of partnering with Australia’s first carbon offset provider, Greenfleet, delivering climate action via a native tree planting initiative, creating a net carbon abatement of 3kg CO₂-e per WOSUP aluminium cup use, alongside positive land use outcomes. Ever conscious of taking a stand against greenwashing – and sportwashing – we also commissioned an independent life cycle assessment (LCA) by Lifecycles into environmental advantages and disadvantages of our reusable aluminium cup, compared to four alternatives. Namely, three single-use products: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) cup; polylactic acid (PLA) cup; and an aluminium can. Plus, one reusable plastic cup made from polypropylene (PP). Lifecycles concluded WOSUP’s reusable aluminium cup has the lowest impact on climate change, fossil fuel depletion, water scarcity and soil quality. Based on delivery of one drink, the WOSUP cup has a carbon footprint of 32g CO₂-e, (reduced to a net carbon abatement of 3kg CO₂-e per use, thanks to our partnership with Greenfleet), compared to reusable PP (50g CO₂-e); and single use alternatives PLA (47g CO₂-e); PET (43g CO₂-e) and an aluminium can (244g CO₂-e). We are continually looking for ways to further improve our product and look forward to the future introduction of a renewable aluminium plant in Australia. In the interim, we’ve commissioned KPMG to conduct a comprehensive Climate iQ risk and opportunity assessment report, analysing the environmental benefits of our solution compared to other beverage packaging such as cans and reusable plastic. 

Martin: Outside paying BIG eco-dividends, we’ve developed an innovative rewards and technology platform specifically designed to drive customer engagement and deliver substantial value to end-users and venues. By doing this, WOSUP uniquely and purposely solves partners’ ESG (environmental, social governance) marketing conundrum by introducing a dynamic new category in ‘sustainability sponsorship’ which brings spectators and fans on their ESG journey. Namely, an interactive, real-time ‘WOSUP Rewards’ loyalty program built into every cup. The loyalty program, accessed via customised QR codes on WOSUP cups, can be used to deliver information and education, alongside attractive offers, competitions and money-can’t-buy experiences, with plans afoot to introduce an environmental portal to track cup usage and eco impact at events. Since COVID, there’s also no question sports sponsorship has become increasingly digitised and data-driven, for good reason, enabling brands to better understand and engage with fans. As a Sports Innovation Lab report found, venues and brands need to be in a stronger position to personalise the sports experience and deliver breakthrough fan experience. At WOSUP, we also believe this means putting eco-action directly in the hands of fans – all without them needing to leave their seats, aside from purchasing a cold drink at the bar. In short, the WOSUP solution overcomes the purpose paradox facing the live sport and entertainment industry and is a no-brainer in light of recent controversies surrounding sponsors involved in Netball Australia, Cricket Australia, and the AFL. By choosing to ditch plastic and switch to lightweight, reusable and infinitely recyclable aluminium cups – supersized with plug-and-play integrated services and fan engagement technology – WOSUP’s partners play an invaluable role in the shift to a closed-loop, sustainable circular economy. Critically, the live sport and entertainment industry sits at the touchpoint of society and culture, with a highly engaged audience of loyal spectators and fans. With less than a decade before Australia hosts the Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games, there’s no time to waste. Our message is simple: stadiums and arenas have the opportunity RIGHT NOW to lead the world in driving change at the forefront of sell-out, sustainable events.  

Q4: What challenges did you face along the way, and how did you overcome them? What important lessons have you learned from your experiences?

Martin: Challenges are par for the course when establishing a startup. As a social impact enterprise, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy challenging a 20+ year paradigm in removing cheap, unnecessary plastic products from large-scale venues and events. Along the way, we’ve faced and overcome a raft of different challenges, from manufacturing choices to supply chain and logistics; cash flow; personal sacrifice; and mental health. Both Karl and I have been through personal loss during this period, and we’re very lucky to have supportive families. We have always sought and listened to trusted, expert advice and built a team of like-minded, passionate people, overseen by a board we’ve handpicked to help us deliver growth in Australia and globally. Most importantly, we consider ourselves a WOSUP family and always look out for one another.

Karl: Our initial launch during the COVID-19 pandemic was both a challenge and an opportunity. It forced us to refine our model multiple times and extend our preparation phase before launch. As a result, our business model has evolved significantly from its initial form, thanks to feedback from various stakeholders in the stadium, event, and festival sectors. As for biggest lessons? Hands down, the importance of adaptability and actively listening to all stakeholders.

Q5: As successful entrepreneurs, what advice would you give to others who want to start their own businesses? What key lessons have you learned on your journey as entrepreneurs?

Martin: This is a question I get a lot, and my best advice is fairly straightforward. It will take time. You need patience. Imagine a timeline, earning very little, and then triple it. You also need to consider what you’re willing to sacrifice and perhaps more importantly never give up. People constantly say 90% of startups fail. I recently read a post on LinkedIn, which I think all founders should reflect on: startups don’t fail just because they’re startups – 99% of failed startups are the result of founders quitting. The lesson being anyone wanting to start their own business needs immense fortitude and resilience. Entrepreneurship, by its very definition, is about identifying a problem and being the solution. However, as a founder, it also means listening to advice, pivoting, being humble, and remaining crystal clear about purpose. If you can’t do that, it’s probably not for you.

Karl: Don’t anticipate immediate success. Instead, just take that first step, then the next, and the next. Consistently taking action every day, whether big or small steps, will put you leaps and bounds ahead of those who never start the journey. It’s as straightforward as that. And of course, resilience is key! Someday, you’ll reflect on your journey and realise you’ve achieved something you once considered unimaginable. And finally, the journey of a founder is never solo. Don’t forget family and friends who helped you believe in yourself in the first place, which means carving out time for work-life balance, and making sure this applies to everyone on your team. Again, lead by example.

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