Olio’s founders on fighting food waste and funding a startup

Olio is all about food. Other people’s food, to be precise. The app aims to connect neighbours, as well as local businesses, so that food doesn’t get thrown away unnecessarily. Given that households in the UK generate around 7.1 million tonnes of food waste a year, it’s an ambition with major environmental, as well as economic, ripples.

Olio’s founders on fighting food waste and funding a startup

If you’ve got a few extra vegetables, or a loaf of bread nearing its sell by date, Olio will help you find a place nearby to put it to use. The startup recently graduated from Facebook’s LDN_LAB incubator, based in the social network’s London offices. We chatted to Olio’s co-founder Tessa Cook about the company’s ambitions, as well as what advice she would give to startups looking to make a name for themselves.  

Where did your big idea come from?

I’m a farmer’s daughter, and so have always hated throwing away good food. This is because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it. As a result, the inspiration for Olio came when I was moving country and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn’t managed to eat, but that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. And so I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed miserably.

Through the whole process it seemed to me crazy that I should have to throw this food away when there were surely plenty of people within hundreds of metres of me who would love it, the problem was they just didn’t know about it. And so the idea of Olio, a mobile app where neighbours and local shops & cafes can share surplus food, came about.

What problem is your startup trying to solve?

OLIO is solving the problem of food waste, and it’s no exaggeration to say that food waste is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today. Globally one third of all the food we produce gets thrown away, whilst 800m people go hungry (a number that could be fed on a quarter of the food we waste in the West).

If food waste were to be a country, it would be the third largest source of greenhouse gases, after the USA and China.

But what very few people realise is that over half of all food waste in the UK takes place in the home, with the average UK family throwing away £800 of food each year that could’ve been eaten, collectively adding up to £15bn. Our proprietary research, backed by a YouGov poll, has also shown that a third of people are ‘physically pained’ throwing away good food, and yet they find themselves having to do this almost daily, with no better solution than the bin.


(Tessa Cook (L) and Saasha Celestial-One (R), co-founders of Olio. Credit: Annabel Staff)

How can Olio’s approach be scaled to fight global food waste? What are the biggest barriers to this?

We’re in the process of closing our Series A round, and with that investment we will be able to grow the team and therefore scale our impact significantly. One of our biggest challenges is encouraging more of our signed up users to take the leap of faith and add or request their first item.

It can be hard to believe that anyone will want your surplus food, but they most certainly do as 43% of all food added to the app is requested in less than one hour and 75% is requested in less than 24 hours. As more and more people experience this magic of sharing, the network effects are starting to kick in, which is really exciting, as it brings us one step closer to our vision of a world without food waste.

What is the most important thing that you took away from your involvement in Facebook’s LDN_LAB?

So many things! The LDN_LAB mentors helped us with everything from our technology to our finances but perhaps the stand out thing – which is very obvious in retrospect, but hard to maintain in the moment – is the importance of focusing the whole team around a single metric. It gives such great clarity to everybody, and inspires incredible creativity. We also did some great work with one of our mentors around Growth Accounting and built a pretty neat model.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve managed to overcome so far?

One of our biggest challenges has been how to grow the user base with a marketing budget of close to zero. We’ve overcome this thanks to our Ambassador programme which harnesses the passion and energy of thousands of volunteers to spread the word about OLIO in their local communities. At the moment we have over 19,000 Ambassadors and have reached almost half a million users, so it seems to be working well.

Have you had any startups before? What went right/wrong, and what did you learn from the experience?

My Co-Founder Saasha co-founded My Creche, prior to Olio. My Creche was London’s first high street ‘pay as you go’ childcare solution, which solved a very real problem Saasha had as an expat living in the city – she wanted to be able to get a couple of hours for herself, but didn’t have the support of family nearby to be able to do so.

She managed to get the business to profitability within nine months of launch, and very quickly learned that being a startup founder was the most fulfilling role she’d ever had. However she also learned that despite her initial ambitions, childcare is a very hard business to scale, and so the global, scalable nature of Olio – as well as our mission – immediately appealed.

What’s the best advice you can offer about seeking investment?

Well the clichéd “ask for advice and get investment” definitely worked for us first time round, although it’s quite a hard model to replicate! There are many, many things you need to get right to raise successfully, but a couple of important ones are:

1) being able to tell your story clearly, concisely, and in a way that is compelling – less is often more here.

2) select the right target investors – you will quickly learn what type of investors your business resonates with, so develop a laser focus at finding those.

3) develop a *very* thick skin and understand that before every ‘yes’ there are often many, many no’s – so don’t dwell on the no’s, just learn and move on.

Where do you see yourselves in five years time?

Looking forward to the next five or so years, our ambition for Olio is an unashamedly bold one – it’s of growing from half a million users, to hundreds of millions of users who are all sharing our most precious resource – food – instead of binning it.

What’ the best advice you’ve ever been given?

We absorbed a lot of the philosophy from the Lean Startup book; plus Paul Graham’s essay about doing things that don’t scale; and the importance of focusing on delighting your first 100/1,000 users.

In the early days of a startup, there’s no getting around the need for lots of unglamorous grafting and ‘faking it til you make it’.

Who do you admire in business?

Leaders of large corporates who are taking their businesses on a brave journey towards sustainability, or who already have sustainability embedded into their DNA – Unilever and Patagonia would be two good examples respectively.

What book would you recommend?

Both Saasha and I are obsessive podcast listeners, and that is where we have learned an enormous amount about the world of startups, and from the lessons of entrepreneurs who have gone before us. Some of our favourites are This Week in Startups, Recode Decode, Traction, Mixergy, Grey Matter, Masters of Scale, 20 Minute VC and How I Built This.

Lead image credit: Annabel Staff

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