Can two women in tech create a food revolution?

“If food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and ending this waste would be as effective as taking 1 in 4 cars off the road!”

Tessa Cook, CEO @ OLIO, talks to us about her mission, the struggles of being a woman in tech and how she got her innovative (world saving) App to market.

Tessa’s parents are farmers, so she learnt from a very young age how much work goes in to producing the food we eat every day. She was brought up in an environment where she would never dream of throwing away food and has never forgotten that mentality.

But how does this good practice suddenly turn into an innovative business idea?

When moving back to the UK 2 years ago, I found myself not wanting to throw my left-over food away. I set out on moving day with my new born baby and toddler to try and give this food away and I failed. I thought this was ridiculous, this is delicious food, it’s inherently valuable and I’m sure that someone would want it is nearby, but the problem is they just don’t know about it! And that was the light bulb moment, I thought to myself why isn’t there an app for this? There seems to be an app for pretty much everything else!

Many people have what they think could be ground-breaking ideas, but how did you put this into practice?

The first thing I did was pitch the idea of OLIO to my co-founder Saasha. We’d known each other for a long time, and had worked together on another project. Our skills complement each other and we’re also very good friends.

We incorporated the company on the 9th of February 2015 and decided we had that year to prove it and make it happen, and if not we would have to go back and get proper jobs. The first thing we did was desk research in order to understand how big the problem of food waste was and discovered it is an absolutely enormous problem.

“A third of the food we produce globally is thrown away, UK households are responsible for half of all food waste. The average family throws away £700 worth of food each year. That adds up to £12.5 billion… £12.5 billion that is going straight to landfill!”

But just because it’s a big problem on paper doesn’t mean to say that people care about it. So, we did a survey using SurveyMonkey and we found that 1 in 3 people are “physically pained” throwing away good food. That’s a lot of people, who almost every day, are having to throw away food because, quite frankly, there’s no alternative… there’s been no innovation since the rubbish bin!

But just because it’s a big problem and just because people hate throwing away food, will they take the next step, which is to share food? We invited 12 people who took part in that market research survey, and said they were physically pained throwing way good food, and we put them all in a closed WhatsApp group. They all lived close to each other and we asked them for 2 weeks to post any surplus food they had and we’d see if anyone did that and if they started sharing food. Thankfully they did start sharing food and when we debriefed with everyone afterwards they basically said to us “it’s amazing”, and “you have to build the app”!

We then found an agency called Simple Web and they became our first investor. They gave us reduced day rates in exchange for a small equity stake in the company. Saasha and I were bootstrapping at that point, so we worked with them and got the app launched in July of last year and that was the MVP. Towards the end of last year we then raised external financing and that enabled us to bring the product and tech in-house and to hire 2 developers.

When did you decide to cover non-food items?

We added non-food in this summer and that was because OLIO worked really well. Just under half of all items get requested in less than an hour, which is pretty amazing, and between 70-90% of all items that go on the app get picked up. So our users know that the app works really well and they just started adding non-food items and for months I had to keep deleting them and taking them down. So, we reached a point of thinking why are we bothering to do this, why don’t we just create a separate section for this? Everybody has toiletries, cleaning products and unwanted gifts and all those sorts of things in their homes and people who love OLIO hate waste of any variety. It seemed to be a sensible next move for us to create a non-food section for items for which there isn’t currently a natural market place, and it only makes sense to share with a neighbour.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

Encouraging people to take the leap of faith and to try adding or requesting an item. In particular, encouraging people to add food as demand is so high we need to keep finding more and more people who will add their surplus on the app. Now that is a great problem to have because we know just how much surplus food there is out there so, it’s forcing us to think quite creatively. One of our solutions to this problem is our recently launched Food Waste Heroes programme. This is where we match up our volunteers with their local bakery or café or deli or supermarket and our volunteers go and collect their unsold food at the end of the day and add it to the app. Often our early adopters don’t generate much food waste themselves but now with the FWH programme they can use the app for their local bakery, instead of all that beautiful bread and pastries being tossed in the bin they can redistribute it to their neighbours. We allow them to keep up to 10% for themselves as a thank you.

What is involved in setting up awareness in your local area?

We’ve had about 7000 people reach out through the app and we take them on a journey where they can watch videos to understand what volunteering looks like. They can then order their own hyper local marketing materials. They are posters and flyers and letters to pop through their neighbour’s doors, balloons, we have speaking notes for them if they’re going to speak at a local event and press releases they can use with their local media. We also add them to a closed Facebook group where they can share their successes and ask each other questions and support each other. One third of all transactions that take place on the platform take place outside of areas that we have actually launched the app so it’s that volunteer based model that’s doing that! Today or tomorrow we will be passing 100,000 signed up users which is a serious milestone.

What are your plans for OLIO?olio

Apart from continuing to acquire new customers, the main push is the Food Waste Heroes programme. We have about 30 business locations that we provide this service to, and we want to roll it out to 100s and in time 1000s of businesses, so instead of them throwing away food our volunteers can redistribute it throughout the community.

Do you have any plans to work with supermarkets?

We are working with Sainsbury’s and we pioneered the Food Waste Hero programme in partnership with them. Most supermarkets are now working with charities who will come and take what they want, but unfortunately there is still a huge amount of food left over. OLIO acts as a ‘collector of last resort’ and so enables those stores to become genuinely zero food waste. As well as Sainsburys we’re also actively talking to a number of other high-street brands about this model, and setting up pilots.

Do you think tech is the way forward for combatting food wastage?

Yes, humans have been sharing food for 2 million years and that is a big part of why we have been so successful as a species. Food is our most precious resource and we’ve always been very good at sharing it and preserving it. In the last 50 or 60 years, we’ve lost that skill, that art, as we’ve retreated into our homes increasingly isolated by technology. OLIO is saying let’s harness that technology to reconnect us with the people who live immediately next to us and in our neighbourhood, so we can share our surplus food again.

Women in tech is a hot subject, why do you think there is an issue with getting women into the tech industry?

I don’t think there is a single answer, it is a very complex issue. I think it starts the minute a child is born with a lot of the gender segregation that takes place in terms of colours and toys. Also, the reinforcing of traditional biases that unfortunately still exist today and that continues right the way through the education system. There are very strong signs that this is starting to be reversed with the number of women that are taking science degrees but obviously, it takes time, it takes at least 20 years for that to start working its way through the system. Tech also suffers from the same problems that business as a whole suffers from, women leaving the workforce at some point during their careers, often triggered by children and having a family. I am very positive around this because Saasha and myself have been through this directly ourselves. We think that if companies increasingly embrace truly flexible working, now we have the tools enabled by tech to do this and do it effectively, then women will no longer have to make that zero-sum decision of either I work or I don’t work. Women will be able to work but do so at different times of day and night that will fit in with a family.

What challenges, if any do you think you’ve faced being a female?

The only area in which we have possibly faced it, although it’s impossible for us to actually know, is in getting funding. If you look at the statistics, then only 10% of all venture capital funding goes to female led businesses, and some studies have shown that the same business and the same pitch delivered by a man is much more likely to get funding than by a woman. However I’m very pleased, and proud to say, that OLIO has just completed a round of funding and has got some incredible investors supporting us in our mission.

 “In April, analysts at tech research firm CrunchBase found that just 10% of the world’s VC money currently goes to female founders” Business insider

 What tips do you have for women wanting to take the plunge into tech?

If you want to do something entrepreneurial doing it with a co-founder is a brilliant thing to do. It must be the right co-founder – it’s like a marriage, you shouldn’t hurry into it but that will make your journey much easier and much more enjoyable. It will make you stronger and the business better, so I definitely recommend having a co-founder! I also think the most important thing is probably not to overthink it too much and instead to just start doing. Focus on setting yourself tight deadlines and just getting the product out into the market as quickly as possible so you can start getting data and feedback and you can start iterating.

A lot of start-ups struggle with recruiting, how have you found it?

We haven’t struggled recruiting at all, in fact quite the opposite. I think that’s because we have a very strong mission and increasingly people are wanting to work for organisations that are having an undeniably positive impact on the world. People want to feel that they’re contributing something positive and having a positive impact and they want to work for organisations that enable them to do that.

How have you found working with agencies?

We’ve worked with 3 different agencies, and all have been very positive, one was Simple web to get the product built, one was with Marlin our PR agency and with yourself, Revolution Technology, for recruitment. We found agencies that understand that our mission is the most important thing for us; agencies must be as equally excited about what we’re doing as we are.

What is the next stage for OLIO? Will you branch out abroad?

We’re available internationally already, and we’ve got pockets of food sharing happening in Finland, Sweden, America and Russia, and that’s led by our volunteers. We’re going to be fund raising again at the backend of next year and so our focus between now and then is continuing to grow the number of users and to continue to grow the portion of our users that engage with the app and share their surplus items. We’ve made the app available internationally so anyone who wants to use it can use it, we give them all the tools to kick start OLIO hyper locally, but for us as a team we’re going to stay focused on the UK.

Tessa and Saasha have overcome the odds and made an amazing impact on an area that is in desperate need of change. They have really shown how the tech we use on a daily basis can be put to use for a much bigger cause than just updating our Facebook status or checking Twitter. With climate change as it is, OLIO is one easily accessible way to take matters into your own hands and make a change that will benefit everyone…  and all whilst getting free food in the process!! Not only this but Tessa and Saasha have also demonstrated that women can drive change, become entrepreneurs and be successful in the world of tech!

For more information on how you can get involved with OLIO’s mission, check out their site and download the free App now!!!


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