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Transforming sketch-pad dreams into a world-changing start-up

For Jamie-Lee Kay, a double degree from Deakin University was the beginning of a journey that is seeing her change the world – one straw at a time.

Soon after completing a Double Bachelor of Commerce and International Studies, Kay teamed up with partner Lennart to launch an environmentally on-point start-up aimed at ridding the world of plastic straws.

The lightbulb moment for The Other Straw came while travelling in Vietnam in August 2018, after her final semester at Deakin, Kay says.

“We were there for about five weeks, travelling from south up to north, and we met up with lots of bamboo farmers. They were already doing bamboo straws in Vietnam, but only on a small scale.

Having always been interested in starting a business that was “purposeful rather than just for-profit”, Kay quickly saw the mass potential of bamboo straws.

“They are a fantastically reusable, sustainable alternative to plastic straws,” Kay says.

Not only are they durable (they can be reused hundreds of times), they acclimatise to liquids in a way that metal straws don’t, and of course they are made from a natural and sustainable source and are compostable.

“I’m deeply concerned about sustainability and my plastic footprint. From a business and environmental viewpoint, the opportunity was there – I just needed to be gutsy and put the work in.”

Jamie-:Lee and partner Len, co-founders of The Other Straw

The Deakin difference

Kay says the extensive and applied knowledge she gained over the course of her degree was critical in helping her transform sketch-pad dreams into a viable, concrete start-up.

“All the skills I gained at Deakin were incredibly useful at the beginning – and they continue to be. When I wrote up the feasibility study, I was using a template from my Deakin days.

“My commerce degree gave me such a good understanding of how to go about formulating these types of documents. Combined with the global perspective I got from International Studies degree, it meant I was well-prepared to push forward with my ambitions.”

From little things…

The Other Straw has grown fast in a short period of time. Most sales come directly through the e-commerce store (30 per cent from outside Australia), but the straws are also sold through approximately 80 retailers around Australia and Japan.

While Kay and her partner have resisted recruiting staff so far, they anticipate that team expansion will be required sometime in the next 12 months.

“It has been good to keep things to ourselves in these early stages – it is nice to have the control. But at some point you have to look at growing and/or outsourcing.”

Where there’s a spark

This year Kay has been a part of SPARK Deakin – a unique “accelerator hub” that links budding entrepreneurs with the global start-up community and provides them with a range of supports, including mentorships and funding opportunities.

She says the SPARK Deakin team has been “fantastic”, providing her with advice on a range of fronts.

“The guidance and the connections have been amazing and have helped us grow and scale our operations.”

Any Deakin student, alumni or staff member can apply for the SPARK Deakin program, which runs for three months but gives participants enduring entrepreneurial and industry connections.

Learning opportunities

In the early days Kay’s focus and skills were spread across a range of business areas, from supply chain to marketing.

“I was wearing many different hats – and often all in the one day!”

As The Other Straw grew, Kay and her partner gradually divided up responsibilities to reflect their natural interests and strengths.

“My passion and skill set are in marketing, content, website development, and social media marketing. My partner’s is more around the logistics, financial, and operational side.”

While the allocation of roles makes business sense, Kay says the wide and diverse focus she had in the early days of the start-up journey was valuable.

“Having that breadth helped me get a very well-rounded understanding of all the elements involved in a business. It was daunting but I gained so much”.

Be bold and reach out

So, what advice would Kay give the aspiring start-up founders out there?

“Don’t be daunted! Face any new challenges head on – as opportunities to find out something you don’t yet know. Coming straight from university to doing this has been pretty incredible: the learning I’ve done along the way has been challenging, but also really rewarding,” Kay says.

“There is so much support out there. If you are feeling unsure about how to do something, don’t get discouraged; reach out and connect with those who can help.”

Find out more at The Other Straw.

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