For as long as I can remember, I’m the friend that finishes food. At sleepovers throughout my teens, my best friend’s Dad would complain that I ate them out of house and home. At university I’d find myself with five bowls stacked up in front of me as the girls passed their leftovers my way and my poor boyfriend… well he doesn’t stand a chance against me and my fork if he’s daft enough to eat slowly. You know that phrase ‘eat to live or live to eat?’… I definitely fall into the latter.
To say that I was a tad excited then at the prospect of interviewing the founders of an app where the whole premise is based on the idea of eliminating food waste, would be underplaying it somewhat.
To give you the quick lowdown, OLIO is a free app connecting people with their neighbours and with local shops so leftover food and other household items can be shared, not thrown away. Hailed by the likes of the BBC, Financial Times and ITV in the UK to CNN, Huffpost and abc News in the States, with numerous awards to its name and most importantly thousands of active users downloading and engaging with the app worldwide, it would be easy to assume that Tessa Cook and Saasha Celestial-One, the best friend duo behind the app, would have put their feet up by now, revelling in its success.
I met with Tessa in her one bedroom flat-turned-office-space in Finsbury Park a few weeks back to discuss how a collection of food leftovers when she was moving house – six sweet potatoes, a white cabbage and a few pots of yoghurt to be precise – led her to create an app that’s started a food-sharing revolution across the globe and why for her and her best friend, this is simply just the start.
Tessa Cook. (on the flat) It serves a purpose! We’re a start-up so we can’t afford to spend precious money on an office space…
With the smell of scrambled eggs in the air, Tessa darts off to the kitchen returning with her breakfast.
Tessa Cook: I’m so sorry, do you mind if I eat this? It’s been a manic morning!
She can. She did. Eat away! Right, let’s talk about life before OLIO briefly so that we can get a better understanding of your story. How old were you when you came up with the idea?
TC. I was 38, I’d literally just had Charley in the September and started working on business ideas….
Tessa is the first working Mum I’ve spoken to on the blog, juggling OLIO with two young children- Archie and Charley. Growing up a farmer’s daughter, she learnt the meaning of hard work from a young age. With an undergrad in social and political sciences from Cambridge University, her first job post-graduation was as a strategy consultant.
SC.SD. Was that because there was a pressure to get a ‘proper job’ after Cambridge?
TC. I hope it’s less the case now but there was this consensus back then that the “best jobs” were in consulting. It suited me quite well because I genuinely had no idea what I wanted to do… it was a really good grounding in business but I very quickly realised that I wanted to do things rather than write about things for other people to do.
After three years, she jumped ship to Emap, a FTSE 100 media company, working her way up to Managing Director of a portfolio of magazines, conferences and exhibitions. Taking two years out along the way to do her MBA at Stanford (which is where she met Saasha) on returning to the UK, Tessa took a job at the Dyson headquarters where she was responsible for working out what digital meant for the organisation.
SC.SD. Would you say that’s where your tech head developed then?
TC. I could see what was happening in the publishing space and how it was being uprooted by digital so it made sense to move over and be in the growth area…. Ever since I’ve been focused on all things digital.
The desire to do something entrepreneurial had been growing inside Tessa throughout her thirties.
SC.SD. So you said that in September when you’d just had Charley you were working on business ideas… what did that involve?
TC. I was getting a bit sick and tired of not being inspired by myself and my own life story. I felt like I was always sitting in the audience in awe of all the cool stuff people were doing and I just thought I need to do something that I’m proud of.
SC.SD. But at the same time you had a very good, stable, well-paid job?
TC. I had a very good job so I wasn’t going to give it up for just anything. I knew that if I was going to do anything entrepreneurial it was going to take a minimum of 5 years, 24/7 so it had to be for something I’m passionate about and something that’s scalable because I’m really motivated by impact. I had lots of ideas but a lot of them felt really derivative of other things.
SC.SD. Such as?
TC. The world doesn’t need another photo sharing app! So I thought why don’t I try and do something meaningful?! That’s when the stat about food waste popped into my head.
The stat being that a third of the food produced globally is thrown away…
TC. I thought wow, that sounds like a really big problem and I care about food… why don’t I look into that?
From September to December of 2015, with a toddler and new-born baby in tow, Tessa started doing desk research in which the problem of food wastage migrated into the problem of waste more generally. With Saasha on board too, the two women began to focus their energy on creating a b2b marketplace for waste but by the end of January 2016, decided that it wasn’t the right time- the industry wasn’t ready.
SC.SD. How did that feel? You’d put all of your energy into an idea that you were clearly excited about to come to the realisation that it wasn’t working…
TC. Horrific. We were devastated because we really wanted to do something entrepreneurial that was going to make a difference. It ticked all the boxes and it was the right time for us. Everything was perfect except the business idea..!
It was in this moment that Tessa decided to unveil her lightbulb moment.
TC. Saasha always reminds me of this… I’d gone upstairs to put Charley down for a nap, came downstairs and went “well Saasha, I have had this other idea… you’re probably going to laugh when I say it but…”
On December 17th 2014, Tessa had been getting ready to move back to the UK from Switzerland. Despite her family’s best efforts to eat everything, she was still left with 6 sweet potatoes, a whole white cabbage and some yogurt. Frustrated by the idea of throwing it away, with her new-born baby and toddler in tow, she set off into the neighbourhood to find someone to give it to but when the lady she had planned to share it with wasn’t in her usual spot outside the supermarket, she returned defeated. It was in that moment, that the idea for OLIO was born.
TC. She just got it immediately. Her eyes lit up. We did a one hour mini MBA on it, the pros and cons, size of the market, this that and the other and within days had come up with the company name.
SC.SD. Amazing! Let’s talk about the name because it’s not an obvious choice!
TC. Naming a business in this day and age is really difficult because no domain names still exist! We just went through the thesaurus looking at words and OLIO means a couple of things that were very apt for us. One is ‘a miscellaneous collection of things’ which when you look on the app, you’ll see a miscellaneous collection of things! And then secondly, it’s also a traditional Mediterranean stew which is a classic dish to prevent food waste by using leftovers.
SC.SD. Perfect then!
TC. Yes! We loved that plus we loved that it had two ‘o’s’ and OLIO is all about sharing. It’s about the circular economy and community. We could’ve called ourselves something like ‘The Food Exchange Network’ where it does what it says on the tin but Facebook, Amazon, Google…. they’re words you can really own and create a brand around.
SC.SD. Very true, and you have! What was going through your head in those first few weeks when it was just an idea?
TC. It’s strange because when you come up with an idea and get excited about it, you become so overwhelmed with paranoia and think someone’s going to steal your idea so your instinct is not to share. I can remember reading several blog posts on the topic which essentially said don’t be stupid though. Tell your idea to absolutely everybody because they can give you feedback, connect you… help you make it a reality.
I certainly felt at the beginning a bit like an imposter. When people asked “what do you do?” I wasn’t an entrepreneur so felt very self-conscious talking about it.
SC.SD. Imposter syndrome seems to be a common theme. It’s almost like you don’t have anything to show at that stage so you start to doubt yourself…
TC. Exactly, you have nothing to show, it’s very difficult. But sharing it with lots of people was helpful.
SC.SD. And Saasha got it immediately.
TC. Saasha got it immediately! We did a ton of research, got legal advice…
SC.SD. And was that costly?
TC. We agreed an amount that we could afford to put in without jeopardising our families because we’re both the breadwinners so we had to be careful about that. We’d give ourselves a year to achieve this and if we haven’t achieved… we weren’t necessarily sure what this was but we knew that by December 31st, OLIO had to be going sufficiently well so that we didn’t have to find proper jobs. If not, we’d have to go and find proper jobs.
SC.SD. So it wasn’t like you were measuring the success on statistics? Ie. It had to be downloaded by X number of people by 31st December…
TC. It was impossible to say where we’d be by that point of time. You can spend hours, weeks, months planning but the only thing certain is that your plans will be wrong. We had a very clear long term vision but we only planned 2 to 3 months ahead.
Initial market research for OLIO included a survey monkey to friends, family and local Facebook groups asking quite simply ‘do you care about food waste?’ With 384 responses, it was enough to be statistically representative with 1 in 3 people admitting to being “physically pained” when they had to throw away good food.
TC. We used deliberately extreme language to filter out the ‘yeh… it’s bad’ responses.
To test the next stage of their hypothesis (which was that those 1 in 3 will want to share food instead of throwing it away), Tessa and Saasha emailed 12 strangers who had said they were ‘physically pained’ to take part in the, I quote, “crazy experiment”. For two weeks, all twelve residents from North London were put in a whatsapp group and as and when they had any surplus food available, were asked to post it in the group.
TC. We sat there with bated breath thinking oh my god is anyone going to share? The first item that was shared was half a bag of shallots… typical Crouch End!
SC.SD. How many days did it take for that to come through?
TC. 2 days or so!
SC.SD. Which is a long time when you’re sitting there waiting…!
TC. Yes definitely, it’s a very long time! Do you know how many minutes there are in 2 days?! And then over those two weeks several things were shared.
After the two weeks were up, Saasha and Tessa met the twelve volunteers over coffee for face-to-face debriefs.
TC. The two key pieces of feedback were 1) you absolutely HAVE to build this and 2) it just needs to be slightly better than a whatsapp group!
That last point was extremely important because there were hundreds of features that we thought were essential for this to work and actually they said no! We really absorbed that and just thought what is the minimal feature set required to make a transaction? You have to be able to add a listing, someone else must be able to see it and request it, you have to be able to message, and you have to be able to take it off. That’s it.
SC.SD. So it’s very streamlined?
TC. It’s extremely basic!
In that knowledge, five months after research began, the first version of the app was made available to download in the app store.
TC. We had such a big ticking clock in our heads… we knew that we had to have sufficient progress by the end of the year so wanted the app out in the market for at least six months. We realised quite early on that time needs to work its magic. People need to see and hear about OLIO twice before they download it and it takes time for that to happen.
When it was first launched between July and September 2015, the two friends restricted it to five postcodes in North London but owing to popular demand, by December 2015, the app became available across the capital.
TC. Some people were travelling from South London to North London to pick up food which was wildly irrational but extremely helpful for us! They were our early adopters and so passionate about what we’re doing that they were prepared to deal with a pretty crappy product and not a great experience!
Word of mouth and an active social media presence quickly caught on and soon enough, both women started receiving messages from across the country enquiring as to why it wasn’t available nationally.
SC.SD. Did you envisage it growing so quickly?
TC. Our ambition has always been enormous! It’s been for hundreds of millions of people to use OLIO all around the world – it was never to build something that just works in the UK. However we quickly realised as a small team that we didn’t have the resources to launch OLIO everywhere that wanted it.
When OLIO was made available across the UK therefore, they included a ‘call to action’ feature on the app which said ‘contact us if you want us to come to your neighbourhood’.
TC. Originally Saasha and I called all our earliest volunteers to brainstorm what volunteering could look like and they had amazing ideas so by working with them we created a volunteering program. Nowadays that’s 90% automated but they can order our marketing materials, access an online hub where they can get speaker materials for events, press releases etc…
SC.SD. That’s amazing. And the rest of the world came when?
TC. I think it was around October… I was finding I was staying up late into the night talking to people from America and Columbia and Kenya and Australia…
SC.SD. And they reached out to you first?
TC. Yes… basically with variance of ‘I want to bring OLIO to my country’. Again we thought if the app works then why not.
We assumed that our next areas would be France and Germany – as most people sat in the UK tend to think for international expansion (!) – but actually, there was a lot of very organic sharing happening in Sweden, Finland, and the US…
SC.SD. That’s incredible. So I imagine this is when the press got involved? Do you remember what it felt like when you got your first big headline because I’ve seen that Huffpost, CNN, abc News, ITV … the list goes on… have all shown interest. We’re talking big names.
TC. The biggest for us, I remember, was August 2015. We’d only just launched the pilot version in July and it was BBC London that got in touch… it was so exciting but I was also very nervous about that kind of exposure when really our product wasn’t up to scratch. At the same time though, we thought we don’t know when this opportunity will come round again so why not?
SC.SD. Seize it?
TC. Close our eyes and say yes! And we did! We had 3000 downloads in a matter of hours and that was more than everything we had done in the six weeks prior! It obviously crashed our servers and all that classic stuff!
When you’re a small start-up you can’t manage PR and media coverage. It’s much more about their schedule, their timelines and you just need to leap on it when they’re ready….so I’m very glad we took that leap of faith!
The door bell goes and the interview is halted briefly when Tessa picks up a bag of nail varnishes and answers the door.
TC. I think this is an OLIO pick up. Sorry… I’ll explain this in a minute.
Returning a few seconds later empty handed, she goes on to explain that she’d put them on the app that morning. In less than 10 minutes someone had requested them and just like that, they were gone.
SC.SD. Seeing that play out in action is amazing, but how do you prepare for the security element? I just think I live in my flat on my own…
TC. It’s very important and it’s something that will grow in importance in the app. But that’s why we have user profiles, their statuses, a star rating system etc… 90% plus of our users choose doorstep sharing but there is a small minority that prefer to use our drop-box system that we have in local shops and cafes or just agree to meet at the end of the street…
SC.SD. Do they know when they pick up from you that you’re the founder?!
TC. I can’t remember if I have it on my profile, I’m constantly testing the app, let’s have a look…
She gets out her phone and opens the app.
TC. No I don’t at the moment! Generally though, unless they’re in a hurry, it’s an amazing opportunity to get feedback when they come to collect!
SC.SD. And do you still get a buzz from it when they pick up?
TC. Every time! I just can’t stress it enough! There isn’t really a precedent for it. OLIO is the world’s only neighbour to neighbour food sharing app, it just feels amazing! You feel like you’re part of something.
SC.SD. A lot of the headlines have focused on how it’s helped a lot of people in poverty…
TC. We do have a lot of people that say “shouldn’t the homeless have this?” and what a lot of people don’t realise is that 4-8 million people are living in food poverty. They have a roof over their head, they look like you and I but they don’t necessarily know where that next meal is coming from. What they love about OLIO is that it’s free to download, free to use, there are no forms, no stigma – which is really important – and they can access fresh, nutritious food.
It’s connecting people from different social classes. We certainly hadn’t envisaged that aspect of OLIO before. We were more focused on stopping good food from being thrown away but the real power in OLIO is just connecting people. We’ve had people tell us that it’s changed their life.
SC.SD. So you’ve finally found your meaningful project?!
TC. Yes! I’d just assumed that I’d work in the private sector, learn as much as possible and then jump across to the charitable sector! I’m a big believer in the power of business to transform the world we live in positively.
SC.SD. Absolutely. Let’s move on to money…. You said that you used to be the breadwinner in your family. If the app is free, how do you make money?
TC. It’s a good question! Right now we’re not! So Saasha and I bootstrapped initially then we got some private external investment which we had to go and raise… We raised two rounds of that.
SC.SD. Was it daunting?
TC. Yes! It’s something neither of us had done before, we had no clue whatsoever and it is a very complex, daunting world with lots of legal stuff attached to it as well.
SC.SD. I can only imagine. How did you prepare for that?
TC. Listening to start-up podcasts obsessively and reading all the start-up blogs… you start learning all these acronyms, you learn about the pitfalls to avoid, figure out what firms and funds are what… it’s an extremely challenging process and emotionally very, very draining…. A bit like dating!
SC.SD. Go on…
TC. A huge amount of rejection that you have to try and not take personally, lots of messing you around but when you find the one it’s amazing!
SC.SD. Haha I’ll remember that one! What about making money going forward, have you thought about ideas for monetising the app?
TC. Yes, there’ll be a couple of revenue streams that we’re testing. One is that as we start scaling with larger retailers and supporting their stores, we’ll charge them for the service that we provide. We’re also investigating the freemium model so potentially have some features that are premium on the app where you pay a small monthly fee to access them and the third way is advertising within the app.
We’re actively researching them now and trialling them over the next couple of months to figure out what’s best.
SC.SD. A lot of women would be daunted by the prospect of walking away from a comfortable salary and taking such a drastic pay cut. What would you say to any woman who is hesitating on these grounds?
TC. The first thing you have to do is open excel and write down line by line your family’s burn rate. Work out exactly what it costs at the absolute minimum for your family to survive. I would never recommend making crazy sacrifices for your family for a start-up because that won’t end well.
Saasha and I are on a salary and when we raised our first round of financing, we were very clear with our investors “if you want us to work on this 100% of the time, we have to have a minimum salary of this which is slightly higher than your average 25 year old single guy out of college because we are in our late 30s. We have families, we have mortgages”…
SC.SD. So there is some money coming in then?
TC. Yes, so myself, Saasha and the team of 7 all have salaries. Our salaries, certainly for Saasha and I, are a fraction of what they were before though.
To bring some extra cash in, Tessa does non-executive work on the side and rents her flat out on air bnb along with the spare room in the house that she lives in with her fiancé and two children in Wiltshire.
TC. We have to be fairly resourceful and scrappy to keep our heads above water.
SC.SD. And that’s a sacrifice that you still think is worth taking?
TC. Absolutely. Do I go shopping for clothes anymore? No. Do I get taxis anymore? No. How often do I get my hair done? Once or twice a year. Can I go on all the holidays I used to go on that my friends still go on. No.
But… the flipside is that I’m working on the first thing that I’ve ever been genuinely proud of. I feel fulfilled every day that I get up plus I get to work from home, take my kids to school… the benefits are so enormous that it feels a little misleading to call them sacrifices.
SC.SD. With OLIO going from strength to strength, how do you find the time to look after yourself? What does down time look like?
TC. Saasha and I are firm believers in the importance of taking care of yourself. The first year of setting up OLIO was the worst year of my life. I had a new born baby and a toddler, we’d moved country, the house we’d moved into was a complete and utter wreck… no one believed in the idea, I was doing no exercise, I had no time for me… it was just horrific.
Historically I’d always exercised after work but when you do this you realise there is no after work (!) so I have to schedule it into my working day! I have my best ideas when I’m running or doing classes. Saasha does a lot of yoga. It’s a marathon and not a sprint.
SC.SD. You can’t beat a good run.
TC. Exactly. It’s got to be sustainable. There seems to be a start-up myth that if you’re not working 24/7 you’re not committed and I just think that’s bullshit quite frankly!
The doorbell startles us once again but this time, fresh from delivering a speech to an MBA class on start-ups, Saasha arrives. After quick introductions, I realise the allocated hour is running out.
SC.SD. Before I let you get back to your busy day, my last question is friendship based because it’s often said that it’s dangerous going into business with friends. How has your friendship evolved since starting this?
TC. It’s amazing! I’m getting married in December and she’s one of my bridesmaids…
Saasha Celestial-One. I think it helps we have such a strong friendship because so much is at stake that we don’t allow tensions to bubble under the surface. Having something happen to our friendship would be pretty catastrophic.
TC. It was strange at the beginning because we were tense, and insecure and hadn’t really worked together before but we both hate conflict and we’re both, as a result, very collaborative. So the minute I feel angsty or upset or misunderstood…
SCO. Or did I offend her, or did it come out wrong….
SC.SD. You voice it?
TC. Yes. I honestly think it’s one of our biggest strengths! Between the two of us we make a whole person but if one of us isn’t around or has to tend to children, we’re completely interchangeable… It feels like we’ve cloned ourselves! We compliment each other really well.
With the hour up, we end the interview there and say our goodbyes.
If there’s one thing that I’ll take away from this interview, it’s that Tessa and Saasha dispel the myth so commonly shared in the start-up crowd, that if you want to start your own business, you’ll need to risk it all. It’s such a widely held assumption and one that I too have always considered to be largely true but how could they with children and families to support at home?
Yes they faced classic set-backs along the way, crazy hours and the unexpected success that caught them off guard – so fitting of start-up tales. But throughout all of that, a few constants kept them on track. They set aside savings equally, they researched methodically, they tested extensively, listening to feedback and adjusting accordingly all the while knowing loud and clear that if it didn’t show signs of picking up within a year, they’d return to their ‘proper jobs’.
Though they no longer enjoy the luxuries in life that previous jobs bought them, for the first time in their careers, they feel truly fulfilled. They’ve created a product in the space of just two years that is day by day, helping to build a more sustainable future and luckily for us, they show no signs of stopping just yet.
They are a team on a mission and it’s a mission that one spare carrot, potato or bag of peas at a time, has got communities talking again, creating a food sharing revolution, not just here in the UK but the whole world over.
Pretty damn impressive if you ask me.
For more information on OLIO, visit their website here.