One of the rather cool companies Octopus Ventures invests in is OLIO, a revolutionary app which allows users to share surplus food with their neighbours. So far, the app has 2.2 million users and has rehomed 6 million portions of food, sparing it from the bin. Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted a year, but OLIO is helping people to reduce waste and save money at the same time. We spoke to co-founder Tessa Clarke about her inspiration for starting the company and the ways OLIO is changing lives for the better.
This is such a brilliant concept. Tell us how the idea came about…
My lightbulb moment happened when I was moving back to the UK from Geneva in 2014. The removal company told me that I needed to toss out the remaining food – a cabbage, a few sweet potatoes and some yoghurts. Having grown up on a farm, I have a pathological hatred of waste. I ended up bundling up my young kids and heading out to try and find someone to give it to. I couldn’t find anyone though and the thought of knocking on my neighbours’ doors seemed embarrassing and inefficient.
Did you know right away that you were onto something?
I’d worked in the digital world for 15 years at this point, and I knew there was an app for everything. So I was surprised not to find one for sharing surplus food. I realised I’d come across a problem that needed solving urgently. Up until this point, I’d had a brilliant corporate career, but it didn’t feel like an important legacy to leave behind.
What were the next steps?
After some research, I discovered that a third of all the food we produce globally, each year, gets thrown away. Meanwhile, 800 million people go to bed hungry – just a quarter of that wasted food would feed them. It was like reading about a dystopian nightmare and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t being screamed from the rooftops.
How smooth was the path from there?
I spoke to a friend from my MBA, Saasha Celestial-One, about my idea, and she was immediately on board. Together, we founded OLIO, but were cautious at first. We set up a WhatssApp group to see if people were interested in food sharing with neighbours and were blown away by the positive response. From that moment on, there was no stopping us.
Both you and Saasha were the breadwinners in your family. How big a leap of faith was it to get OLIO off the ground?
It was terrifying! We invested our life savings in developing the app. But the thing that gave us courage was seeing this enormous problem and thinking, “If we’re not going to solve this, then who is?”
How important has support from investors been to OLIO?
Absolutely crucial. First and foremost, investors provide capital. But the really valuable investors are ones like Octopus Ventures who support you through the hard times and challenge your thinking. They’ve seen hundreds of entrepreneurs travel this path before – I’m a first-time founder, so I’ve only got experience of one startup. The best investors invest in the best businesses and if you’re one of that portfolio, you get access to all of the learning and experience.
Many businesses have struggled during the last few months. How has OLIO fared?
We actually hit two million worldwide users five weeks ago. During lockdown, we pivoted to a no-contact pickup model and advised users to collect food as part of their sole daily outing. Then we launched two campaigns: #cook4kids and #cook4carers. There are 1.3 million school children who go hungry without school meals, but these campaigns provided 20,000 meals to kids, as well as hardworking carers.
It must be wonderful to know how much impact OLIO is having. Do you hear many moving stories?
Every day. I’ll never forget the story of a homeless guy who befriended an OLIOer when he picked up some food. That OLIOer ended up helping him get a home, and from there he was able to get a job. When he described his first night with a roof over his head in a post on our forum, there were tears running down my face. We also recently received a heartbreaking email from a woman who lost her job because of COVID. With a five-week wait to receive her universal credit, she resorted to eating weeds, but OLIO had helped her have her first proper meal in some time.
It’s such an honourable company. How does the business model work?
We’re firm believers in profit with purpose. Right now, we generate revenues by charging businesses for our Food Waste Heroes programme. To help businesses such as supermarkets, cafes, and bakeries become zero waste, we have a network of 10,000 volunteers who collect unsold food and take it home. They add it to the app and within minutes, neighbours will be knocking on their doors to pick it up.
Such a brilliant idea! What’s next for OLIO?
We want a billion people using our app by 2030. Already, a quarter of all activity is taking place outside of the UK, with active markets in Mexico, Singapore, and New Zealand.
How have attitudes to food waste changed during the last five years?
When we started, sustainability was considered niche. In the past couple of years, awareness of the food waste problem has increased significantly, but it still hasn’t had its ‘plastic moment’ when actually, people realise food waste is more damaging for the planet than plastic.
What have you learnt about being an entrepreneur?
It’s never as hard as it is on day one – on day one, there are no believers, it’s just you and your co-founder. In the early days, everybody thought Saasha and I had “baby brain” after being off on maternity leave, thinking that a weird food sharing app was ever going to work. But five years later, we’re still here and we’re growing. I just wish we’d started sooner. For a long time, I wrote myself out of a career path as an entrepreneur because I felt intimidated and didn’t feel like it was for someone like me. It took some time to realise that the opposite was true. For more information about OLIO, visit olioex.com or download the app in the app store. And check back soon to hear from Raz, founder of AI-powered and Octopus Ventures-backed Third Eye Labs.