In conversation with Tessa Clarke, co-founder & CEO of OLIO
Updated: Mar 18
Last week, I sat down with Tessa Clarke, Co-Founder and CEO of OLIO, to discuss how she built the world’s first neighbour-to-neighbour food sharing app. OLIO is approved by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex as well as a dedicated base of three million users across 49 countries.
Image Source: OLIOex.com
OLIO was borne out of co-founder Tessa Clarke’s own frustration with food waste. Before moving country, Tessa found there was no easy way to share the contents of her fridge, resorting instead to cross-border smuggling. Clarke and her co-founder, Saasha Celestial-One, with impressive 15-year careers in business under their belts, embarked on the process of creating a platform for food sharing that would solve this problem.
OLIO's early stages
“The first step was desk research to figure out how big the problem of food waste was, and what we discovered shocked and horrified us”. The UN estimates that a third of global food produced is wasted, equating to roughly 3.3 Gt of carbon dioxide. As Tessa puts it, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. “That's because a landmass larger than China is used every year to grow food that's never eaten”.
In their market research, Clarke and her co-founder encouragingly found that people wanted a way to waste less food. “One in three people told us that they were physically pained throwing away good food. We used deliberately extreme language like 'physically pained' to filter out false positives”. The two used WhatsApp to test whether a group of neighbours would actually share food. When meeting with the group, Tessa recounts, “they told us three things. One, you have to build this. Two, it only needs to be slightly better than a WhatsApp group and three, how can I help?”.
In 2015, OLIO was born. The app came together with remarkable speed: an MVP version was launched within just five months. The concept is brilliantly simple: OLIO uses the power of digital community to connect those with surplus food to those who need it, for free. The app is backed by several rounds of VC funding. When I asked about the process of finding the right investors and establishing a common metric for success with them, Tessa’s response was that first round fundraising was “a joyous experience”. OLIO garnered the support of investors who knew and trusted the founders, and backed the concept.
However, she says, “ever since then, fundraising has been extremely painful”. Finding investors who are passionate about OLIO - in an environment where only 1% of capital goes to female-founded businesses - undoubtedly proved tricky. “I think the challenge with fundraising for something like OLIO is that it's never been a hot sector. We're not crypto. We're not AI. We're not VR, AR, food delivery or FinTech. OLIO is a Tech for Good, so there's immediately much less capital.” Speaking about the experience of fundraising, Tessa reminded me of Dana Kanze’s brilliant TedTalk, recalling the techniques with which she combatted the subtle ways the VC landscape is rigged against female founders, answering the questions she should have been asked rather than the ones she actually was.
From start-up to scaling up
As it began to scale, OLIO experienced the growing pains of any start-up. Early adopters, mostly ‘conscious consumers’, produced little food waste. Knowing that the demand for surplus goods was certainly there, the immediate challenge for OLIO was to ensure adequate supply.
The solution lay in establishing partnerships with large waste-producers. Last year, OLIO launched a partnership with Tesco, using OLIO’s thousands of volunteers to connect surplus supermarket food to consumers. The founders opted not to monetise the platform through advertising in large part due to its widely publicised social implications. Instead, the app makes money through these partnerships: “we generate revenues through charging businesses for the service that we provide to enable them to have zero food waste stores, and that is growing. We're continuing to sign up more and more businesses every month”. A redistributive win-win.
This model has proved hugely effective: powered by 50,000 ambassadors acquired through an automated process, OLIO has now reached 49 countries. Whilst the core team focuses on the UK, a quarter of its sharing each week happens outside of the UK. OLIO’s largest markets are Mexico, Singapore, New Zealand, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, driven by their ambassador programme, with no offices required.
What the pandemic has meant for OLIO
“In the earliest days of COVID”, Tessa says, “it was really unclear that a neighbours-to-neighbour food sharing app could continue to exist”. Amidst its uncertainty, the pandemic has shone a clear light onto profound socio-economic inequalities. The Trussell Trust reported the marked effect the pandemic has had on food bank use. With this in mind, the founders felt a sense of responsibility to keep operating, quickly seeking advice on how to ensure safe operations.
OLIO has, in fact, seen massive growth during the pandemic. “We had a decline of about 20-25 percent in terms of listing activity over the first two weeks of lockdown. And then from that moment onwards, we've had a hockey stick growth.” Last December, the app experienced five times the number of listings it had in December of 2019. Half of all items are requested within the first 30 minutes. This is perhaps not altogether surprising given the desire for community and renaissance of home cooking (and stockpiling), let alone the vast inequalities which the pandemic has exposed.
The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of ventures like OLIO, especially the hyperlocal community that it provides. Last October, the app launched its Made section, where users can sell handmade crafts to their local community. There is something particularly special about this part of the app. My local listings include steamed pork buns and some particularly impressive mille feuille (see below), both within a kilometre away. Perhaps more profoundly, “you only have to see a couple of photographs of empty supermarket shelves to realise on a very visceral level how powerful and important food is. It's literally our life source.”
Content courtesy of OLIO app.
A future with less waste
OLIO pushes forward into 2021 with growth firmly in mind. In the coming weeks, OLIO is launching what Tessa calls a “freemium business model”, a unique exemplification of Robbie Kellman Baxter’s recent claim that any business can be a subscription business.
The aim is to have 1bn users by 2030. OLIO is, after all, a mission-focused initiative: “if humanity stands any chance whatsoever to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis, that's what we've got to achieve. It's an enormous and terrifying goal, but somehow we've got to figure out a way to do it.”
I asked Tessa whether she has any advice for students looking to enter the start-up space, and she responded with suitably good advice: “Our previous experience was incredibly valuable. We were able to learn so much and bring that to OLIO, which I think has enabled us to be much more successful than we would have otherwise been.”
“But, so long as you are insanely curious, then you can just learn, learn, learn - and we're constantly learning - it’s about picking the right time. And you've got to pick the right problem. Make sure that you're solving a real problem, and a problem that feels like your reason for existence on this planet.”
Founded in 2015
3 million users
15 million portions of food provided
3.2 million household items shared
2.1 billion litres of water saved
12,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions avoided
The real reason female entrepreneurs get less funding, Ted Talk by Dana Kanze
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick