Founder Focus: Tessa Clarke of Olio
Tessa Clarke began her career in the corporate world working for companies such as the Boston Consulting Group, Planet Retail and Dyson before deciding that she wanted to invest her time and energies into solving a pressing global issue. Tessa, along with her co-founder Saasha Celestial-One, thought up the idea of a food-sharing app between neighbours to help eliminate food waste. Her inspiration came when she was moving country and found herself with a host of perfectly good food that was going to waste. She envisaged sharing the food with her neighbours and thus, OLIO was born. Since then, Clarke and Celestial-One have grown OLIO from a local initiative in North London to a popular app across 49 countries with over 1.5 million users. By 2019, four years into the business, 3 million portions of food have been shared on the app.
What was your eureka moment?
The lightbulb moment 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 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 can share their surplus food, came about.
What was your elevator pitch?
Food waste is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today – 1/3 of all food produced each year gets thrown away, and if food waste were a country it would be the 3rd largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the USA and China. With half of all food waste taking place in the home, OLIO is a free app that solves these problems by connecting people who have food they don’t want or need, with their neighbours living nearby who would like it.
How did you test your idea?
Once I’d had the idea for OLIO, Saasha (my Co-Founder) and I were very keen to get started! However, we didn’t want to invest our life savings building an app that no-one would use, and so needed a quick and low-cost way to test our idea. What we settled on was a slightly bizarre ‘proof of concept’ involving WhatsApp. We invited 12 people who had taken part in a market research survey we’d done previously, and who said they hated food waste, and we put them in a closed WhatsApp group. They all lived close to one another, and we asked them for 2 weeks to add any surplus food they had into the group and we’d see if food sharing started. We waited with bated breath for what seemed like an eternity and then eventually someone added an item – half a bag of shallots! We leapt with joy and watched on in excitement as many more things were shared during those two weeks. Once the trial was over we met face to face with everybody who took part and asked for feedback. The conclusions were unanimous… “it’s amazing”, “ you have to build it” and, perhaps most importantly…“it just needs to be a bit better than a Whatsapp group!” We saved a lot of time and money through this proof of concept because we realised just how many features we didn’t need to build.
What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a business on their own?
First, when you’re starting a business 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. Second, you can de-risk massively by starting small and building from there – if you haven’t already, do read ‘The Lean Startup’, a great business-building philosophy. Lots of people want to jump straight to building an app, but I strongly encourage you to build your community or product on an existing platform such as Facebook or Instagram before investing in building something more. Third, 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. And finally, although entrepreneurship can be the most fulfilling thing in the world, it is 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.
Do you have a mentor or are you one?
My approach is to try and learn as much as I can from everyone I meet, as I believe everyone can teach us something if we’re prepared to look hard enough for it. I also like to give back and so allocate at least 1-2 hours a week to helping other entrepreneurs – generally in the sustainability and impact space – who are earlier in their journey than we are.
What’s your Plan B?
There is no Plan B, only Plan A – a bit like the planet!
What is the most worthwhile investment you have made?
I invest a lot in sleep and exercise. That might sound a bit strange, but I’ve discovered – the hard way – that the entrepreneurial journey is a series of marathons, not a sprint. If you want to perform to your best, and keep your sanity intact, then my top hacks are to schedule your exercise into your working day; and be ruthless about protecting your eight hours’ sleep. Whilst burning the candle at both ends might be prevalent in start-up folklore, it only ends in one place – burnout.
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
I can’t select a single failure because in the early days of a business you experience so many failures. Bizarrely that’s a sign of success, because lots of failure means you’re learning fast, which is the key objective early on. It’s a totally different approach to working in a large corporation and so can take some time getting your head around.
What is coming up for OLIO?
We recently teamed up with SAP and Social Enterprise UK to feature on the new One Billion Lives content platform which showcases the stories behind a range of impactful social enterprises. I’d encourage anyone interested in partnering with or creating their own social enterprise to check the platform out – you can also check out the Impact Series on Food & Drink that we feature in here.
What is the book that you would recommend that everybody reads, and why?
If I had to pick just one book now, it would be “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate” by Naomi Klein. That’s because it powerfully reinforces just how urgently we need absolutely everybody working on the biggest problems of our lifetime – the climate, biodiversity and resource depletion crisis – if we’re to stand any chance whatsoever of having the future we want.
How do you find balance in your daily life?
We’re a ‘remote-first’ company which means that we are all based from home, and so can work flexibly and autonomously. It’s a transformational approach to working and definitely makes it easier to lead a balanced life. Critical elements to a balanced life for me are being able to exercise every day; spending some quality time with my husband and kids; listening to podcasts, and working on something that I know is truly making a positive difference to the world.