To kick off our #WomenInSMEs campaign we interviewed Tessa Clarke, co-founder and woman behind the genius idea of food-sharing app OLIO. Working with co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, OLIO was established February 2015 and has seen huge success over the last three years.
Every year, UK households throw away roughly £13bn in food waste. OLIO is a free app whereby users can easily post pictures and descriptions of their excess, unwanted food to share among the local neighbourhood. A ground-breaking alternative to throwing food away, OLIO enables individuals to connect with their community and contribute to tackling the ongoing environmental harm impacting our planet.
The app separates all listings into 3 categories of wanted, food and non-food and allows you to browse listings within your geographical area. To date OLIO has had over 800,000 users sign up and been responsible for sharing over 1.2 million portions of food in 32 countries.
OLIO’s ethos challenges how we view household and food waste, prompting us to be more ethically conscious about what we choose to throw away…
1. In just 3 years you have grown your business to a team of 20 – an impressive feat! How difficult was it expanding Olio?
Because OLIO is all about matching people, or businesses, who have surplus food with neighbours living nearby who would like it, it’s essential that we grow both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ side of our marketplace at the same time. This is a really hard thing to do – the classic ‘chicken’ and ‘egg’ situation! Which is made even harder when you’re a startup with very limited resources.
We managed to crack this conundrum thanks to our two types of volunteers – we have OLIO Ambassadors who spread the word about OLIO in their local communities, and so help to drive ‘demand’’; and we have OLIO Food Waste Heroes who collect and redistribute unsold food from local businesses, and so help to match the demand with ‘supply’.
Today we have 27,000 Ambassadors and over 3,000 Food Waste Heroes, and we continue to grow both very rapidly. It’s thanks to these volunteers that we’ve grown OLIO to a community of approximately 825,000 users who have together shared over 1.2 million portions of food!
2. OLIO has won and been a finalist for a huge number of awards. How important do you think entering awards is for startups and businesses in their early stages?
I think that in the first year or two you need to be really focused on proving that your business can work, and getting it to some level of scale. Therefore I wouldn’t recommend applying for awards in these early years. However soon after that I would suggest applying to targeted awards i.e. awards where you feel that you fit the criteria and have a good chance of winning, because it can be great for establishing credibility with business partners, users, investors and the media. This being said I wouldn’t recommend a scatter-gun approach as entering awards can be very time consuming. We were fortunate enough to win quite a few awards last year, and so this year we’ve decided not to apply to any, and will revisit awards again next year.
3. As mothers and CEOs, do you find it difficult achieving a work life balance? What do you do to keep stress at bay?
This is a topic that is close to both of our hearts, and we strive towards a “balanced life”, rather than work/life balance, because when you’re an entrepreneur working from home, the two can become very mixed!
In the very early days of setting up OLIO is was pretty much impossible to lead a balanced life because we had to achieve so much, in so little time, and with virtually no resources. As we’ve grown the business and the team however, we’ve both achieved a much more balanced life – which is important, because the startup journey is a series of marathons, not a sprint, and so it’s essential to avoid burnout.
We find that working predominantly from home is extremely helpful in achieving balance, and we both carve out time during our working days to exercise. In the early days we used to feel quite guilty about it, but now we recognise that if we’re to perform at our best then we need to be mentally and physically fit and exercise is critical for this. Plus, I find that I have many of my best insights and inspirations for OLIO when working out, so it really is killing two birds with one stone!
4. Have there been times where you’ve doubted the success of your business?
We’ve never doubted the need for OLIO to exist in the world, and the fact that we WILL take the business to scale. However we’ve certainly had many sleepless nights worrying about whether our progress is fast enough, and whether we can secure enough financing to allow us to have the time to get to where we need to.
We’ve certainly come to realise that the old metaphor of start-up life being like a rollercoaster is absolutely true – we’ve experienced hundreds of wonderful peaks, and hundreds of equally hideous troughs – the main thing though is that we keep on learning and growing, and make sure that we enjoy the journey.
5. How do you fund OLIO and how difficult do you think access to finance is for startups and businesses in their early stages?
Saasha and I invested our life savings into OLIO and bootstrapped for the first year. We’ve since raised 3 rounds of equity financing from private investors, which have been a combination of angel investors and venture capital funds - some of which are investing for ‘impact’ return as well as a financial return. Along the way we’ve met hundreds of other founders and I think that access to finance is almost always the #1 concern, as it can be so challenging – or even existential – for the business. Having said that, there are more sources of capital available than ever before, so targeting and persistence is required, and it can be done – even when it feels like the odds are stacked against you!
6. How many people signed up to use the app when it was originally created for the 5 North London postcodes? What was your primary method for gaining users?
Before we even launched OLIO, Saasha and I managed to get 2,000 people in North London signed up to be emailed when OLIO launched. We did this by giving away free food in high footfall locations and by taking stands at community events. Post launch our main method of growth was via our Ambassadors who take posters, letters and flyers and distribute them in their local community. We were also very fortunate to get some coverage on the news in our first summer, which helped provide an early burst of users! We’ve also benefitted from very strong word of mouth too. In terms of paid advertising, we’ve done lots of experiments and have found that Facebook works best for us.
7. How do you ensure food safety and standards?
Food safety is extremely important for our business. All the work of our Food Waste Heroes – who collect and redistribute food from local businesses – is governed by an extremely robust Food Safety Management System (FSMS). Plus all listings on the app can be reported to us, and users, and we have clear guidelines on what is and isn’t allowed.
8. We think your volunteer opportunities are a great way of getting people involved and interacting with your business. With over 27,000 Ambassadors and 3,000 Food Waste Heroes, what do you think attracts your volunteers to OLIO?
Without a doubt it’s the opportunity to make a real difference, not only to the planet, but to their local communities too, by ensuring that good food is eaten, not thrown away! Some of our volunteers tell us that it is one of the most fulfilling experiences they’ve ever had, which is absolutely wonderful to hear.
9. What would be your biggest piece of advice for female entrepreneurs?
My advice for any early stage entrepreneur is that in the early days it’s critical to have a learning mindset – your key objective at this stage is to experiment as quickly as possible, in order to learn as quickly as possible, and so don’t feel that you need to have all the answers. Linked to that, you can de-risk massively by starting small and building from there - if you haven’t already, do read The Lean Startup, a great business building philosophy, and something we’ve definitely followed as we’ve built OLIO.
For female founders specifically, I’d say that when it comes to fundraising, you’re likely to have more success with investors who ‘get’ your product, and so if you have a product that is targeted specifically towards women, then make sure you go the extra mile to find female investors who have cheque writing authority. Sadly there aren’t that many of them, but the numbers are growing!
10. What are your main plans / goals for Olio in 2019?
Our next major milestone is to hit a million users, which we’ll do in the first half of this year. We’re also looking to approximately 10x the number of listings added to the app in the next 12 months, so we have a lot of work ahead of us!
- For local businesses - become a zero food waste business here
- For events businesses - reuse surplus food in catering / events here
- For businesses that want to help raise awareness - find partner resources here