Up and coming: Food, glorious, food! Tessa Cook co-founder of OLIO

Tessa Cook, co-founder of OLIO tells Talk Business how she wants to start a food sharing revolution.

Tessa headshotTessa Cook found she had a surplus of food in her kitchen, not wanting it to go to waste she took to the streets to give it away. Not welcomed with open arms she thought there must be an easier way to give away unwanted extra food, so OLIO was born!

What exactly is your business and how does it help people?

OLIO is a free app that connects neighbours with each other and with local independent shops so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. This could include food nearing its sell-by date from shops, cafes and markets, or groceries from household fridges when people go away or move home. Users simply snap a picture of their items and add them to OLIO. Locals in the community can then receive customised alerts and request anything that takes their fancy, and arrange pick-up from home, a local store, an OLIO Drop Box, or another agreed location.

OLIO directly addresses one of the biggest problems facing us all today: food waste. It is a significant problem for families (who throw away on average 22% of the weekly shop, worth £700 per year), the environment (food waste is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after the USA and China), society (800m people globally are malnourished) and local businesses and councils (who collectively spend millions of pounds on disposal costs). OLIO aims to address this by combining cutting-edge mobile technology with the power of the sharing economy and an engaged local community to provide a real solution.

What was your inspiration and motivation to get started in business?

I was brought up on a farm and so have experienced first-hand just how much hard work goes into producing the food we eat. To then see that over 30% of that food is thrown away is very upsetting for me. My upbringing combined with a career running digital businesses meant it was very natural for me to develop an app to solve this problem!

OLIO-screen-openingHow did your friends and family react to you starting a business?

They were hugely supportive of me doing something I was clearly passionate about and where I wanted to make a difference. A few people were initially sceptical about OLIO and the concept of sharing food (“are you crazy?!” or “no way are people going to share food out of other people’s fridges!”) as it seemed bizarre to them. But I ploughed on, determined to prove them wrong! The overwhelming amount of support we’ve received for OLIO so far shows that we’re definitely onto something.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was bootstrapping for the first nine months – we had no funding, an idea and all our bills to pay. Throw in the fact that I was juggling moving country and house, had a toddler and a new-born baby, a hyperactive puppy and was working flat out to get OLIO off the ground, and that should paint the picture. My co-founder Saasha and I gave ourselves a year to make OLIO a success, so the clock was ticking was from day one.

As for mitigating the business challenge, we immersed ourselves in the lessons of other startups – learning from them by reading influential blogs, listening to podcasts, talking to others, and then trying it ourselves.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start their own business?

First, make sure you pick a problem that’s your problem to solve – something you’re passionate about and well equipped to tackle. Next, start small, trial, experiment then scale. Implement a low-cost way to test a proof-of-concept so you don’t waste money building a product that people don’t want. Thirdly, do things that don’t break the bank but are effective in raising awareness of your business. For example, every weekend in the summer of 2015 we were pounding the streets and at farmers’ markets encouraging people to sign up to OLIO pre-launch, so we quite quickly had 2,000 early adopters ready to go before OLIO even went live. 

How do you expect your business to develop in the future?

We’re all about trying to create a scalable platform that others can take and use in their local communities to stop good food from being thrown away. The short journey to date has taken us from one neighbourhood in North London, to London-wide, then across the whole country. Hopefully it won’t stop there. We’ve had people from all over the world reach out to us, so in time we plan to take our model overseas.

Photograph: Annabel Staff