INTERVIEW: Leon Foo, Co-founder of The Morning Machine on facing sceptics and building community

(PHOTO: The Morning Machine)
(PHOTO: The Morning Machine)

SINGAPORE — I’ve heard of The Morning Machine and their tagline of ‘Brewing with Intention’ back in their early days of Kickstarter fame, launched in September 2020. They were the company with a dream so big and so imposing, it almost felt impossible to reach. After all, the coffee pod machine they’re selling is not unheard of in those times, which means they can no longer enjoy the first-mover advantage. Still, their IoT-driven device promises more precise coffee extraction and brewing paired with a marketplace that brings all our favourite coffee roasters in one place. People believed in their dream, and it shows—in 28 short hours and in the middle of a crippling pandemic, no less, The Morning Machine was fully funded.

Now, almost a year on, they’re not just household names amongst coffee lovers, but also the darling of Singapore’s investors, having closed a pre-series A round of funding in August this year led by zVentures, a corporate venture arm of Razer, and other investors such as The Lo & Behold Group, and Zopim founders. IIn this interview, co-founder Leon Foo, who doubles up as Founder and Chairman of PPP Coffee, shares what success looks like for a young upstart and how The Morning Machine is driving sustainability and eco-friendly practices in the world of domestic coffee consumption.

(PHOTO: The Morning Machine)
(PHOTO: The Morning Machine)

How do you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?

We’re building the world’s best capsule coffee experience. A state-of-the-art capsule Machine that combines precision brewing with connected convenience, paired with a Marketplace that unites the world’s best coffee capsules.

Which coffee type do you drink throughout the day, and what would you recommend to someone new to the world of Morning machines?

My coffee cravings vary depending on my mood and occasion. The coffee world offers the same breadth of variety and flavours like wine, and we’ve built Morning to help people discover that. For example, the first thing in the morning, I might crave a shorter, medium roast coffee like the Tried & True from Morning. Later in the day or after a bike ride, I might want something more refreshing like an iced, light roast coffee, like the Suke Quote from PPP Coffee or the Ethiopian from Tres Marias.

For new customers, I think getting a variety of coffees and experimenting with the different default recipes is the best way to get exposed to all the permutations you can enjoy. You might find something you love that you stick to, but more often than not, customers love continuously discovering and trying new coffees and roasters.

What was the thought process behind the decision to establish a company that would compete in a space that's already aggressively dominated by Nespresso in Singapore?

Our ambition with Morning is to make delicious coffees more accessible. We wanted to start with a format that most would already be acquainted with rather than developing a whole new form, but we aspire to evolve beyond pods in the future.

The decision to go with the pod format was also because we observed a large influx of roasters putting amazing coffees in pods, and we felt the existing machines on the market didn’t do them justice. We wanted to build something that would improve the precision of the brew and allow flexibility to empower roasters to influence the final product that the customer enjoys. We believed we could redefine how capsule coffees are brewed, perceived and experienced.

(PHOTO: The Morning Machine)
(PHOTO: The Morning Machine)

While many would deem achieving a fresh round of funding an accurate barometer of success, barring dollars and cents, what does success look like, and how far are you from achieving that definition?

Success for us is establishing a thriving ecosystem where everyone in the community benefits. Users can easily discover and brew the best coffees, and roasters can share their amazing coffees with people worldwide. We’ve already built the foundation of this in our current ecosystem, and we’ve been receiving fantastic feedback from both ends. Still, we hope to evolve and refine it to make it even more seamless and engaging.

Over the next 1-2 years, we will be dedicated to evolving the Marketplace and Mobile App to offer a more seamless buying and brewing user experience and make it a compelling discovery platform for coffees and recipes.

What has been the worst thing anyone has said to you about your decision to establish Morning, and what is the biggest lesson you've learned from that criticism?

"Haha, you want to make a coffee machine and compete with Nespresso? You must be kidding. You think you can do better than Nespresso?”

For every David who takes on a Goliath, there will be sceptics. After all, legacy brands have such deep-rooted heritages. An article recently circulated by the Courier Mag newsletter spoke about how new brands shouldn’t be afraid to take on big brands because we shouldn’t “confuse omnipresence for customer passion”.

We wanted to build something community-driven—from roasters to the people who love their coffee, and I think that philosophy sets us apart. We’re carving our own path, adding value and building something beyond just a coffee machine, delivering a genuinely connected coffee experience.

Looking back and knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently that would significantly impact how Morning is run today?

Developing and building the capabilities to build a single product and bring it to market is different from making an ecosystem. Building an ecosystem is like building a table. The table cannot be used until all the legs are constructed; then, you can put the tabletop and start using it. I would have embarked on the process differently with equal resources dedicated to building each pillar. Our holistic experience could have been presented earlier and eventually evolved and elevated. Nonetheless, I believe we’ve finally reached that point after three years of development.

Beyond ease of recycling, what do sustainability and eco-friendly practices look like for a company such as Morning?

The pod format has opened up to independents, and it’s been incredible to see the best minds in the business not just improve the quality of the product but also improve its environmental footprint. It’s vital that the partners we work with are like-minded. So on the Marketplace, we only feature pods that are aluminium (one of the most recyclable materials in the world) or compostable. We also share tools and best practices for customers to recycle their pods and coffee grounds at home but eventually, we also hope to build recycling ecosystems in each market.

For the Machine, our vision from the start is to build a product that will remain relevant as long as possible. Wireless connectivity and OTA updates mean that users will enjoy new improvements, features and recipes on their Morning Machine without investing in a new one.

When you look at the state of the F&B industry in Singapore, what is the one thing that gives you hope?

That it is never stagnant, the scene is always so vibrant in Singapore, led by a community of incredibly talented and tenacious people. Even during the lowest points of the pandemic, they continued to evolve and create new concepts and offerings to bring joy to their communities.