OLIO is the food-sharing app hoping to reduce waste and rubbish the idea that what we eat needs to be fresh off the shelves. Co-founder Tessa Clarke’s lightbulb moment came when she moved house and had a large amount of perfectly good food to give away, but no one to give it to. The idea for an app was born, and investment soon followed. But how have Clarke and co-founder Saasha Celestial-One made a success of a startup aiming to fundamentally change the way we source our food?
RSNG What inspired you to set up OLIO?
TESSA CLARKE, CO-FOUNDER ‘I’m a farmer’s daughter, so I have always hated throwing away good food, because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it! 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.’
‘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. Thus the idea of OLIO, a mobile app where neighbours, local shops and cafes can share surplus food, came about.’
‘We are unashamedly ambitious, and we are working towards over one billion users in 10 years’ time’
RSNG How has the business grown since it was founded, and what goals do you have for OLIO moving forwards?
TC ‘OLIO has grown from a pilot project in five north London postcodes three years ago, to a global movement with 850,000 members who have together shared over 1.2 million portions of food. As we look to the future, we are unashamedly ambitious, and we are working towards over one billion users in 10 years’ time.’
RSNG What do you attribute your success to?
TC ‘Without a doubt the main reason for our success is that we have an incredible mission and are solving a problem that people really care about: food waste. Globally, one third of all the food we produce gets thrown away, which is worth $1 trillion per annum. Meanwhile 800 million people go hungry (who could be fed on a quarter of the food we waste in the West), and 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 well over half of all food waste in countries such as the UK takes place in the home. That means that if we want to stand any chance whatsoever of mitigating the worst effects of climate change, we absolutely have to solve the problem of food waste. Also, as we look forward to 2050, we have another 2.2 billion people joining the planet, and in order to feed us all we need to increase global food production by 50% – today we quite simply have no idea how we will achieve this.’
‘We would suggest that a great starting point would be to stop throwing away the food we currently produce! We’ve then managed to harness the passion, energy and creativity of approximately 30,000 volunteers who are spreading the word about OLIO in their local communities.’
RSNG What are the three main business lessons you've learned since OLIO was founded?
TC ‘First, start small, really small. Second, test, iterate and learn as quickly as possible. And third, having a clear mission/ purpose that is undeniably good for the world is the most powerful of all secret weapons!’
RSNG Have you had to learn anything the hard way, or has it all been plain sailing?
TC ‘It’s a long, and at times brutal, slog with no silver bullets.’
RSNG How do you hope to remove the stigma around sharing food, and eating produce that isn’t fresh from the supermarket?
TC ‘We’ve actually found that there is no shortage of people who are happy to collect delicious free food from a neighbour. Our far bigger challenge is encouraging people to think that anyone might want what they have to spare – and they absolutely do! Half of all listings added to the app are requested in less than two hours.’
RSNG What are the benefits of being a start-up in the food waste industry?
TC ‘Feeling that you’re solving a truly enormous and incredibly important problem, every single day.’
‘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’
RSNG How do you keep your users happy?
TC ‘By making the process of sharing food as convenient as possible, and ensuring that the OLIO community continues to be a really lovely, friendly place, even as we scale.’
RSNG Do you have any general advice for someone who might be considering founding their own startup?
TC ‘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, not 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, read The Lean Startup, a great business building philosophy. Given that more capital provides more runway, and more runway generally equates to a greater probability of success, make sure to carefully scrutinise every expenditure you make – it’s surprising how much you can achieve with how little when you get creative.’
‘If you have the chance, raise more capital than you think you need. Finally, although entrepreneurship can be the most fulfilling thing in the world, it’s also an incredibly long, tough journey, so make sure to carve out some time for yourself to preserve your health and sanity! It’s time well spent.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch this TEDx Talk on how to follow in OLIO’s footsteps and build a successful app business of your own: