Cup and Away

By Olivia Shiels

James McKays’ UpperCup is sleek, sustainable and homegrown in Melbourne. The simple reusable cup has the potential to redefine how we drink coffee and embodies his dream of a completely sustainable, “no-waste” café culture. I spoke to James about how he brought his ideas to life and the new phenomenon of crowd funding.

UpperCup reusable coffee cup

UpperCup reusable coffee cup

“You try not to think about failing, but you need to be aware of it.” James McKay, founder of UpperCup explains, seated in a bustling converted warehouse café in Fitzroy, Melbourne. “As humans we tend to focus on the negative by default. But there are still some positive things you can take away from when things don’t go right. Nothing is worth doing if it’s easy.” It is this positive, hit the ground running attitude that has undoubtedly contributed to the success of UpperCup. “You have to do something you love. You have to get up every morning, twenty-four hours a day and know why you’re doing it. What’s you purpose?”

Dressed in a sharp jacket and black jeans, you would be wrong to assume McKay is a born and bred city slicker. However, his early years were spent in regional Victoria, where he gained his first experiences in the hospitality industry working in café’s along the coast and in Geelong before making the move to Melbourne.  Being involved in the coffee community gave McKay the industry connections that helped him get UpperCup off the ground, “I always had conversations with my boss about products, for five or six years I’d been incubating ideas. I had a huge interest in design and always knew I wanted to do my own thing.” It was this combined interest that resulted in creation of UpperCup,  “The idea for the cup came about three years ago. I’d seen warehouses full of paper cups. It didn’t make sense, using a product for twenty minutes and then throwing it away. The discarding, the waste, I thought it was crazy. That’s where the seed was planted.”

The first year of the planning process for UpperCup was spent developing design concepts and working on the brand McKay wanted to create. The following year, he began looking for an appropriate industrial designers who could refine the concepts and turn them into a reality. This involved producing technical drawings and establishing what was going to be viable in terms of manufacturing processes. The search for the ideal collaborator led McKay to Charlwood Design, an innovative and sustainable product design company based in Melbourne. Charlwood had the first 3D printer in Australia, a tool that enabled them to create the first prototypes, however the process was tedious and time consuming. Once the 3D print was made, McKay outsourced a company to produce a silicone cast, then make an acrylic mould replica by hand. It is this determination to construct an outstanding product that set UpperCup apart from its rivals. “My personal experiences and others experiences with existing products were that they were let down by not using the correct or the best materials available. From the start I set out to create the best product we could make.” The UpperCup philosophy naturally developed. “It resonated with people and they picked up on it straight away. Focusing on our values has helped build a sense of community.”

Creating an environmentally friendly, sustainable product was a factor that was at the forefront of McKay’s mind.  He focused heavily on “promoting a culture of reusability, sustainability, things that are high quality and made to last.” The designers decided to use patented copolyester for the cup after an extensive search. The polyester was such a high grade it required European steel that was three times more expensive than average steel to mould the plastic. After realizing the cost involved in using such expensive materials, McKay turned to crowd funding to facilitate his project. Most importantly he “didn’t want to give up ownership of the business” and understood it was vital to raise the money to ensure he remained in drivers seat. He used the Melbourne based online crowd funding group, ‘Pozible” as a platform to raise the much needed funds to get UpperCup on the shelves.

In order to promote the Pozible project, McKay initially employed the traditional means of advertising by personally dropping off promotional flyers into cafes and stores across Melbourne. “After four or five days, I realized it wasn’t worth it. I wasn’t reaching as many people as I needed to. I canned the whole plan and spent the next four weeks focusing on promoting the product online.” Social media and social networking sites provided him with the scope he needed to reach enormous online communities effectively and efficiently. He believes it largely contributed to the rapid awareness of UpperCup, “All of a sudden it just exploded and took off from there. That never would have happened without social media.” The decision to crowd fund proved to be worthwhile as McKay reached the target of $65,000 for the final production phase. While McKay is the first to admit the road to making UpperCup a reality was long and at times difficult, the success of the product has made it all worth while. Last year, UpperCup was presented with awards for Product Design and Best Start Up at the Melbourne Design Awards, a huge milestone for the company.

So where to from here? For now, McKay is happy just to see his product out there, being used by everyday people. “As long as the business continues to have a positive impact on people, that’s the main thing.” There are some creative developments in the pipeline too. “The product will keep evolving”, he explains. “We’re working on a couple of limited release seasonal colours.” And there is always room to grow. McKay plans on taking Upper Cup to international trade shows later this year throughout Asia and the Untied States. He is intent on pushing the Melbourne coffee scene forward towards a greener future and takes inspiration from the café scene in Portland and L.A, where a movement is taking place to put an end to using disposable take-away cups in café’s. Patrons have the option of supplying their own cup, having their coffee in house or buying a reusable cup at the café. McKay believes this is the next step for Melbourne, with evidence of the ‘green’ café scene already beginning to bloom. “Silo by Joost” emerged in 2012 in Melbourne’s CBD and was declared a “zero-waste” café, just one example of what he describes as the next “logical step forward for everyone,” McKay pauses for a moment and smiles, “It just takes someone to start it.”


James’ Top 3 Melbourne café’s:

–        Dukes Coffee Roasters (247 Flinders Ln, Melbourne 3000)

–        Seven Seeds (106-114 Berkeley St, Carlton 3053)

–        Proud Mary (172 Oxford St, Collingwood VIC 3066)


Please visit UpperCup for more information on their products.





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