Dynamic Business spoke with Minor Figures co-founder Jonathan Chiu about the company’s journey from creating cold brew coffee in London to its current ventures in pioneering oat milk products around the globe.
The worldwide demand for alternative milk products is attested by Minor Figures’ global sales growth, which has ranged between 200 per cent to 300 per cent over the past three years.
“You have tailwinds when you have a product that just works so well with coffee. You make up your own mind, but I think that a lot of times people will go for it,” Mr Chiu explains.
Minor Figures was the first coffee company to launch barista-style oat milk in Australia – a move that enabled it to become a leader in the alternative milk market.
“We did work hard, but the growth that we saw was also because it’s just a really good product. What we’re finding is the brands that the baristas are using and choosing are the ones that are doing well in grocery as well,” Mr Chiu says.
Minor Figures’ oat milks are known for their ability to mimic dairy milk – they can be foamed and steamed by baristas and also have a creamy texture and taste that complements coffee.
“When we built our first oat milk product, it was really important to us that the work cafes put in – choosing the roaster they want to buy their beans from, the way they pull the shot, the baristas that they hire, the roast profile – wasn’t smothered,” Mr Chiu says.
“We found that a lot of the non-dairy milks smothered the characteristics of the espresso. What we wanted to do was to have the characteristics of the espresso shine through.”
The company recently branched out into international markets outside the UK and Australia, including the US, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, and Canada.
“I was really confident that, when people tried it, they would get why it was growing so fast in other markets. They just needed to try it,” Mr Chiu says.
The early days of cold brew coffee and crowdfunding
Minor Figures was founded in 2014 in East London by friends and business partners Stuart Forsyth, Will Rixon and Jonathan Chiu. Although the Minor Figures brand is best known for its oat milk products, the team started out concocting cold brew coffee in a self-made microbrewery.
“What you find with our oat milk is that we come from a different place, we come from the position of coffee. We saw cold brew as an opportunity to make high quality and traceable ready-to-drink iced coffee with good ingredients,” Mr Chiu says.
“Because we had this long-life cold brew that could also be stored outside of the fridge, we were able to sell it anywhere. It enabled us to sell all year round.
“We launched it in August, and straightaway we contacted a bunch of retailers. Selfridges and Harvey Nichols took it on straight away. We got a listing at Whole Foods. The first few years we started building out the range, and we got it into places like Sainsbury’s.”
Shortly after Minor Figures launched its cold brew coffee in the UK, the founders started a crowdfunding campaign through an organisation called Crowdcube to build a case for their early-stage business.
“It gets you sharp on your business because all that work to get on the platform and build the plan for investors and financials means that you have to think hard about your business,” Mr Chiu says.
“Once you’re on the platform, people can invest – but you can’t just put it on the platform and have people start investing – you need to actively go out and meet people and pitch. So, we did a lot of going out, meetings, pitching and talking to individuals about our business, our plans, and the financials.”
Mr Chiu adds that, with crowdfunding, two important aspects for the team were gaining momentum and closing down the deals fast.
“What you want to be doing is lining up some investments before you go live on the platform. When it gets to the end, it closes down really fast, and the people start piling in,” Mr Chiu says.
“If you get the amount that you’re going for, then you go through the process of the transfer of money and setting up your shareholder registers, and then you have your shareholders.”
Although some contributions were as low as 10 pounds, it was not long before more than 80 shareholders were on board and investing into the Minor Figures name – a venture that Mr Chiu says helped the team to “get along.”
From start-up to oat milk superstar
In 2017, with the crowdfunding campaign finalised and sales skyrocketing, Minor Figures began producing a range of products. Today, the company is known for its nitrogen-infused cold brew coffees and chais, as well as its one litre oat milks that come in original, light, and organic versions.
“We decided that we wanted to move all of our milk coffee to oat milk. We developed this oat milk for our coffee and, from that, we worked out that we could make an oat milk for coffee shops and baristas as well,” Mr Chiu says.
“The business from that point on started to take off in terms of sales distribution, brand awareness, social media followers, and ability to attract talent. We went from five people to 70. Sales have been growing rapidly ever since then and don’t seem to be slowing down.”
In 2018, Minor Figures entered the Australian market, set up a central office in Melbourne, and established a local brewery in Victoria. Mr Chiu returned to the country and became the company’s General Manager in the APAC region.
“Stu is still living [in London] and Will is from London. I moved back to Australia and am now General Manager for the APAC region. I have a dual role, which is running the APAC region as well as a group role and board role,” Mr Chiu explains.
Despite the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on small to medium-sized businesses, Minor Figures’ efforts to expand have been far from dampened.
“We have about 20 countries that we operate in. Our strategy has been focusing on the coffee shops, and retail is now taking off because people that are seeing it in the coffee shops, and really loving it in their coffee, want to have it for home as well,” Mr Chiu says.
The mission towards sustainable milk
Sustainability has been at the heart of the Minor Figures brand since its inception. For its products, the company uses clean ingredients that are free from dairy and lactose, non-GMO, low in gluten, and contain no added sugar, as well as recyclable packaging.
In 2018, Minor Figures became Carbon Neutral which means the team is committed to offsetting (or counteracting) the carbon emissions they create through various ventures.
“We create carbon emissions. Every business does. We do our best with that by offsetting our carbon emissions,” Mr Chiu says.
Minor Figures supports several overseas projects that aim to improve the livelihoods of local communities – especially those affected by climate change. Two of the most recent are the Biogas Project in Vietnam and the Clean Cookstoves project in Peru.
“These projects not only promote the health of the people that are using coal and timber stoves but also reduce emissions into the atmosphere. There are three new projects that we have selected through a vote and will be investing in this year,” Dr Chiu says.
As part of Minor Figures’ effort to reduce their carbon footprint, the team is also cutting down their food miles by focusing on in-market production outside of their original brewery in the UK.
“One of the big moves that we’ve made recently is producing in market in Australia. So that is an example of getting it at the source as opposed to dealing with it after the fact. In- market production is something that we are working on, not just in Australia, but also in other markets as well.”
A socially and environmentally focused future
Minor Figures’ short and long-term goals are centred on crafting innovative and environmentally safe products, as well as connecting with socially conscious consumers.
“We are bringing out products that are new to the world. We don’t want to just bring out new flavours all the time. We want to do the things that fire us up, and fire the team up, and that everyone gets really excited about,” Mr Chiu says.
“That’s something that’s really strong about our business. We’re good at coming up with new ideas for products and identifying new markets.
“Building a great team and culture in the business is also a real focus for us. All of that ladders up to connecting with the youth market, and everything that we do should work towards that.”
Although the Minor Figure team has loved every part of their journey – from their humble beginnings in a homemade brewery to becoming leaders in specialty brews – Mr Chiu says business owners should take heed when it comes to predicting how long things will take.
“I love doing what I do. It’s a fantastic thing, building a business. But I would say that everything seems to take twice as long as you think it will, and costs twice as much. So always build in a bit of buffer for that – but without putting people off.”
Read more: How to launch your sustainable business